Magnificent 7 ATF xo Make It or Break It

By JudyL

January 13, 2013

MIOBI (Make It or Break It) – For those unfamiliar with MIOBI, actor Anthony Starke (Ezra) plays Steve Tanner. He is the father to an elite gymnast, Lauren Tanner. The series is about the teen gymnasts at ‘The Rock’ gymnasium in Boulder, Colorado. For the purists, please see a disclaimer at the end of the story. I don’t want to give anything away <G>. I don’t recall hearing a first name for Steve’s mother, so I made one up. And as far as I’m concerned we are veering off into AU territory ‘cause I like Steve and Chloe together! This story takes place early in the second season after Steve’s mom visits and meets Chloe, but before all that insanity with the boyfriends. If you don’t know what I mean, don’t worry about it <G>.

Here is a link to some clips that show Steve, Lauren, Summer, Chloe and Emily, just so you get a feel for the characters. You might want to let the entire vid load before playing it or you get choppy viewing.

Magnificent 7 – for those who don’t know M7… shame on you! <G>. It was a, sadly, short-lived (on screen) western produced in 1998-99. Fortunately, we love the boys and you can find all kinds of fanfic based on M7. In this story, they are ATF agents (one of the MANY universes the 7 ride in <G>). Anthony Starke played a gambler in the series, in the ATF universe he is an undercover agent on ATF Team 7.

A huge thanks to Jeanette for giving me the boost to start this story. I had been thinking about the crossover ever since MIOBI started, but had some fuzzy ideas and Jeanette helped with some plot suggestions that brought it all together for my muse. Thank you, Jeanette!! Love ya, girl!

I started this monster in July 2011 and finally got it done with a lot of pushing and shoving <g> from my beta. I want to give a huge “thank you” to Sue for her wonderful beta job and offering suggestions that helped me move this story along as well as her constant ‘nudging’ to keep me on track. Truly, Sue deserves a big round of applause, some virtual chocolate and a lot of money LOL. She's the one who helped me stay the course and finish this story.  Thanks, lady! {{hugs}}

Disclaimer: I own nothing. But I like to play with them and I hope you enjoy this story.

Now, on with the tale!



Chapter 1

Boulder, Colorado – March 2010

Steve Tanner jerked awake, the vaguely familiar images from his nightmare fading out of memory even as he woke. He lay on the bed trying to control his breathing as he wondered why the nightmares had started up again. He’d had them as long as he could remember, but they’d been thankfully few and far between in the last few years.

Steve sat up and scrubbed a hand through his hair, then looked at the clock. It was almost five a.m., too early for him to be up, but there was no way he’d be able to sleep now. He sighed, then stretched and got up to start his morning routine.

Perhaps it had been his rather disturbing conversation with Chloe Kmetko yesterday that had instigated his nightmares this morning. He’d been seeing Chloe now for a little over four months and surprisingly, they seemed to get along quite well. As a high priced lawyer with his fingers in numerous successful business enterprises, Steve’s mother was always looking to get him remarried to some rich socialite.

His brief affair, if you could call it that, with Summer Van Horne had been reluctantly approved of by Margaret Tanner. But only because Summer could fit into the spot of a trophy wife and mingle with high society politely and elegantly.

Chloe was… well, she was almost the exact opposite of Summer. She was lively, vivacious, sexual and not at all afraid to speak her mind. Her normal wardrobe was anything but conservative, though she had looked very classy the night she met his mother. Steve smiled. Chloe was a wild flower in full bloom compared to Summer’s pure white lily.

And for some reason, Chloe saw something in Steve that he didn’t understand. Summer must have seen it too, but Steve was still at a loss. He was often self-centered, snobbish and even a complete jerk at times. Oh, he could turn on the charm and knew he had the looks to attract the ladies, but he often felt less than deserving of their respect. Perhaps it was due to the way his first wife had abandoned him and their daughter, Lauren.

Steve finished buttoning up his shirt and ran a comb through his hair, taking one last look in the mirror. He frowned and studied himself. For a man in his early forties, he’d held up well. Clear green eyes looked back at him. The face was handsome with a few more lines around his eyes. He had to grudgingly agree with his mother about his receding hairline, but he kept himself in good shape and a little less hair wouldn’t be noticed with the right clothes to set off his lean physique.

He grinned at himself, then frowned again as he bared his teeth and examined them more closely. Time for a whitening again. That one canine he’d had to have capped was just a shade whiter than his natural teeth.

He stepped back and straightened his tie. Somehow he felt more comfortable in a suit today than in his normal casual wear. The nightmares tended to make him feel off balance for days afterward. Steve frowned again. Chloe had told him that an old friend had looked her up needing money after getting out of prison.

She had refused, not wanting the two-time loser anywhere near herself or her children, but was admittedly afraid of the man who had spent time in jail for drug and weapons dealing. Steve had assured her he would look into it today. He didn’t have to practice law much anymore. A few lucrative settlements early in his career as well as shrewd business investments had set him up for life. Steve Tanner was a man who could do anything he wanted and never have to worry about money.

But that didn’t mean he’d let some two-bit hood squeeze money out of him by threatening his girlfriend. He did have connections after all.

Steve entered the kitchen to find his daughter already having breakfast.

“Good morning, Daddy,” Lauren said from her spot at the table. She was already dressed in her leotard and a pair of shorts, ready to go to The Rock for practice.

“Morning,” Steve said, still off-kilter from his rude awakening.

“Boy, you look awful, Dad,” Lauren said bluntly.

“Well thank you, dear,” Steve returned sarcastically. He did love his daughter, but sometimes she lacked subtlety. “I’ll be going into the office for a few hours before I go to the gym.”

“Okay,” Lauren said, obviously occupied with her own problems and not concerned about why he would go to an office he only saw a few times a month.

“Well, you have a good day, Lauren,” he said pointedly, hoping for something more.

Lauren nodded and stood up, leaving her bowl on the table as she collected her duffle and purse. “You too, Dad.”

Steve moved across the room and gently caught her arm. He looked down at her and smiled slightly.

“Dad?” Lauren asked, confused.

“Love you, pumkin’,” he replied with a nickname he hadn’t called her in years. Steve kissed her on the cheek and let her go.

“Ah… me too,” Lauren stammered, hitching the straps of the bag up onto her shoulders as she turned and walked away. She stopped and looked back at him with a frown. “Love you, that is,” she clarified and then smiled brilliantly.

Steve returned the smile and watched her go. He still had trouble thinking of her as a teenager, let alone sixteen. Where had the time gone?


Denver, Colorado – March 2010

Chris Larabee opened the envelope and sighed. He both dreaded and looked forward to these missives from Maude Standish. She was good about sending regular updates on Ezra’s new life, but it was never enough to satisfy the men who felt like they’d lost a brother. Thank God, Ezra hadn’t died that day, over ten years ago, but it was almost as bad not being a part of his life since.

Chris sat down at the dining room table and skimmed through the letter. He leaned back in his chair, his mind drifting to the fateful day that had literally changed Team 7’s lives forever.


Several miles outside of Denver – November 1999

Team 7 had been working to bust a gun running ring with connections out of Vegas and Tahoe. Ezra and Vin were undercover, hired on as extra body guards when the ring’s leader managed to tick off his previous bosses by stealing their guns and selling them for his own profit, thus setting himself up in business.

There was no loyalty amongst these thieves and after several rounds of retaliation from each side, the promised threats to loved ones had inspired Kenny Long to hire more men. Vin got stuck babysitting Long’s mistress and her kid, while Ezra was tentatively trusted with watching Long’s back, along with four other men that Long trusted implicitly.

The trouble came when the deal to sell the weapons, and thus the bust, was set up. Long feared that the buyer might be setting him up for retaliation from his old bosses, but at the same time desperately needed to unload the weapons for cash. So the deal was set to take place in an open field miles outside of town where neither side could ambush the other. Unfortunately, that also meant that Ezra and Vin were on their own until the deal was made and the ATF could move in.

For some reason, Long insisted that his mistress and her daughter be close by. Evidently he didn’t trust that they would be safe at home with only one body guard, so Vin and his charges were bundled into a vehicle and added to the small caravan making their way to the meeting place.

Ezra was in another car, with Long and several other men, leading the way in front of the semi-truck carrying the weapons.

Chris and the others, including Teams 4 and 8, were stationed along one of the few roads on this stretch of highway, listening to the bugs Vin and Ezra wore and watching the monitors for their tracking devices. What none of them knew was that on another side road just a little further along, waited revenge.


Chapter 2

Denver - 2010

Chris rubbed his hand over his face and tossed the letter on the table just as Vin walked in.

The rest of Team 7 had retired from the ATF soon after Ezra’s ‘relocation’. Nothing had been the same, and the fact that their job could leave one of them dead had finally hit home.

The remaining members of Team 7 stayed in Denver and continued to work together in various ways. Chris had purchased some brood mares and invited the others to partner with him in raising horses. They had all agreed, though only Vin really had regular hands on, the rest pursued other goals.

Vin nodded to the letter. “Anything I need to know?” he asked.

Larabee sighed and nodded. “It’s an update from Maude.”

Vin frowned. “Anything new with Ezra?”

Chris shook his head. “No. According to Maude he’s living the life he should have had before he joined the rank and file of law enforcement.

Vin snorted.  “Guess she’s happy, she finally got him out, away from us.”

“But would he be?” Chris asked, not for the first time. “If he knew, would he want it this way?”

“I like to think he’d have stayed, Chris,” Vin said taking a seat across from his friend. “I never liked Maude’s solution, always figured we could have worked something else out.” He paused and shrugged. “As long as he’s happy. I guess that’s what counts.”

Chris nodded reluctantly. “Don’t you ever wonder?”

“All the time, Chris, all the time.”


Boulder - 2010

Steve Tanner took the envelope from his law partner. “Thanks, Terry,” he said. “You got that information pretty fast.”

Terry Sloan nodded. “It wasn’t hard to find, this guy has quite a record. I’m surprised he made parole.”

Steve pulled the stack of papers out and scanned through them. “Any way for us to get him back inside?”

“Not unless he’s caught with an illegal substance or otherwise breaks the conditions of his parole,” Terry replied.

“Keep looking into it for me, will you? Maybe contact his parole officer and let him know he’s made some remarks toward an old girlfriend that could be construed as threats of blackmail. See what that stirs up,” Steve said, staring at the picture of Chloe’s ex.

“Sure thing, Steve. I’ll let you know,” Terry said. He closed the door behind him as he left.

Steve frowned. Why did this man look so familiar?



Outside Denver - 1999

The men in the lead car cursed as two SUVs turned onto the road ahead of them and slammed on their brakes. Ezra braced himself as the car skidded to a stop, then pulled his weapon. Long and his men were doing the same and they all watched the black SUVs in front of them warily.

Ezra glanced over his shoulder, his eyes widening as he saw how close the semi had come to hitting them. The car Vin was in was not visible, but he could see two more SUVs blocking the road behind the semi.

“Peters,” Long said to Ezra, “get back there and keep my girls safe.” He turned his attention back to the vehicles ahead where men were beginning to exit.

Ezra saw at least eight men as he opened the door and slipped out of the car. He quickly moved toward the back of the vehicle, trying to keep it between him and the men who’d stopped the caravan. The semi had jack-knifed leaving the cab at a sharp angle from the trailer. Ezra headed toward the back of the trailer along the side furthest from the center of the road.

He could see that Vin’s car was on the side of the road, the front tires were off the pavement. Ezra edged in and knelt beside Vin, earning only a quick glance from the Texan before he returned his gaze to the scene beyond the car.

“Where are your wards?” Ezra asked.

“In the car,” Vin said. “Thinkin’ we need to get them out into the woods over there pretty quick.” Things on the other side of the truck sounded like they were heating up.

Ezra nodded his agreement and opened the door, getting his first look at Long’s ‘girls.’ A pale face framed by mousy blonde hair looked up from the floorboard, big brown eyes widened in fear and then recognition.

“Ezra?” the woman said, then squealed as she vaulted out of the car into Ezra’s arms.

“Leslie?” Ezra squeaked as the stuffing was squeezed out of him.


Leslie released him, smiling with abandon. “What are you doing here?” she asked loudly. “Are you working for Kenny?” She turned to the car and motioned for the blonde little girl who was watching fearfully from within the car. “Come on out, Laurie, and meet your dad.”

During this whirlwind of words and activity, Ezra tried to wrap his mind around finding Leslie here. She was obviously strung out. He tried to pull her down behind the car, but she slipped from his grasp as she grabbed Laurie’s arm and pulled the girl from the car still babbling.

“Quiet!” Vin whispered harshly. “Keep quiet, Leslie.” He got the response he wanted, Leslie closed her mouth and pouted. Vin had been dealing with the woman for too long now and knew how to get her attention. “Come here Laurie,” he said more kindly, trying not to think about Leslie’s wild statement. They had more important things to worry about than the girl’s paternity.

Ezra took a breath and collected himself. He caught hold of Leslie’s arm again and pulled her down onto her knees. “We need to get you two to the trees over there. Will you cooperate?” he asked.

Leslie smiled at him and nodded. She was higher than a kite. Ezra shook his head.

“We need to move, Ezra,” Vin said, his voice full of worry. “Somethin’s going down, and it ain’t good. Did you ever find out what kind of weapons Long stole?”

Ezra shook his head.

At that moment, they heard angry shouts from the other side of the truck and then cries of shock and denial. Several men ran down the road past the semi and the two SUVs. Ezra and Vin shared a fearful glance, gathered up their charges and ran for the woods.

Moments later, a huge explosion rocked the ground.


Chapter 3

Denver - 2010

Buck Wilmington flipped through the bills on his desk, then decided that they could wait until tomorrow. The security firm he and JD had started almost ten years ago was doing great and none of the bills were overdue. He grabbed the computer mouse and opened the file on their latest job.

He and JD were the main partners in M7 Security, with the rest of Team 7 as silent, or not so silent, partners. They all pitched in when extra man-power was needed, just as they did with Chris and Vin’s ranch. They’d named the firm after their ATF reputation of being the Magnificent 7 at JD’s request.

The firm helped set up physical security systems as well as computer security for personal and business customers. JD did most of the computer work while Buck handled the locks, cameras and alarms. Sometimes they provided actual security for parties of the rich and famous, acting as body guards. Those were the times when they would call in the boys.

JD knocked briefly on the open door to Buck’s office and walked in. They were a two man show with a single receptionist at the moment, but had separate offices because JD’s computers took up one whole room and Buck feared he might get hooked up to something if he sat still in JD’s office long enough.

“What’s up?” Buck asked as JD plopped into the chair in front of the desk.

“Kenny Long got paroled,” JD growled.

“What?!” Buck snapped. “Why didn’t we get notified he was up for parole? We would have been there!”

“I don’t know, Buck,” JD sighed, running his hand through his hair. “I had his file tagged to flag me, but it looks like the parole didn’t go through normal channels.”

“Damn it!” Buck cursed, slamming his hand on the desk.

“We need to tell the others,” JD said seriously.

“Yeah,” Buck said. He looked into JD’s worried eyes. “Ez’ll be okay, Long never even knew his real name, and now…”

JD nodded. “I know. Long’s probably as far from Denver as he can go while on parole by now anyway. I just can’t believe they let that bastard go after what happened.”

“Me either, kid,” Buck agreed.


Boulder - 2010

Steve pulled into his parking place at The Rock and looked at his watch. It was almost lunch time, maybe he could take Chloe out and talk to her. He saw the new car he’d helped her finance a few spots over and wondered the best way to handle it. If he went in, then both Lauren and Emily would see them leave together, and although both of their daughters had finally accepted their relationship, it was better not to rub salt in an open wound.

He pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial for Chloe’s phone. She could make an excuse and meet him out here.


Inside the gym, Emily Kmetko watched as her mother answered her cell phone. From the smile on Chloe’s face, Emily could tell it was probably Mr. Tanner on the other end. She sighed. She didn’t really expect the relationship to last, but it sure was awkward in the mean time.

Chloe ended the call with a frown and placed her phone back in her purse while she scanned the gym. Emily smiled slightly when their eyes met, but quickly ducked her head as she continued her cooling down stretches.

“Hey, Em.”

Emily looked up at her mother. “Mom.”

“Um, look, sweetie, something’s come up and I can’t go to lunch with you. Okay? I’ll see you after you get home, okay?” Chloe said, not hiding her nerves very well.

“Sure, Mom,” Emily said with a shrug. She watched as her mother smiled, waved and walked quickly out of the gym.

Betcha anything she’s meeting my Dad,” a voice whispered in her ear causing Emily to start.

She rolled her eyes at Lauren Tanner’s statement. “No bet,” she said, but got up and followed Lauren toward the exit. It was possible that her mother was going somewhere without Steve Tanner. Wasn’t it?


Denver - 1999

Chris slammed on the brakes and threw the truck into park as he and the others poured out of their vehicles. He didn’t stop to apprehend any of the suspects, most of whom were writhing on the ground around the truck, if they were moving at all. Instead he headed for the side of the road where he could see the car Vin had been driving.

He knew the others would do what was needed. Buck would reluctantly take command and organize the other teams to take care of the bad guys with Josiah and JD’s help. Nathan had already called in for ambulances and air transport for the injured and was keeping pace with Chris, his kit in hand.

They found Ezra first. It was hard not to see him with all the blood staining the ground around him. The woman was partially shielded beneath his still body, but they could tell that some of the blood was hers as well.

Nathan knelt, opening his bag as he assessed the situation. “Go find Vin and the girl, Chris,” he urged, unable to look his leader in the eye. That might give away the fear in Nathan’s heart and Ezra would need all the hope he could get from the looks of things.

Chris nodded and with one final look at the bloody mess of Ezra’s head and back, he trotted away to check on Vin and Laurie.

Nathan found pulses on both of his patients and sighed with relief. He didn’t want to move Ezra, but he couldn’t tend to the woman with him on top of her. First thing first, he thought.

A close examination of Ezra’s head showed the cause of all the blood. A long, deep laceration on the back of his skull, practically scalping him. Bloody, but not life threatening at the moment. Of course, there had to be a serious concussion to go along with the wound, but there wasn’t anything Nathan could do for that at the moment.

The more critical wound was the piece of metal protruding from his back. A piece of the semi trailer that had been blasted apart by the hand held rocket that had been fired. Nathan packed gauze against the shard and gently wrapped Ezra’s head. He checked his pulse again and nodded. No change, for now he was stable, but if Nathan had his say, Ezra and Vin would be the first one’s lifted out of here.

Chris’ steps faltered when he saw Vin. His friend was laying crumpled on the ground, kind of hunched up as if he’d fallen on something. It was then that Chris heard the crying and he hurried to them.

“Take it easy, honey,” he told the girl who was trapped beneath Vin. “I’ll get you out in just a minute, let me check my friend, okay?”

He heard a mumbled, frightened, “okay” and continued to talk to her. “I’m Chris. What’s your name?”

“Laurie,” she sniffled.

“Well, hi Laurie. Are you hurt?” he asked as he checked Vin over. He found a cut on Vin’s temple and several bloody gashes in the coat he was wearing. Any further examination would require removing the coat.

“I don’t think so,” Laurie answered quietly. “Can I get out now?”

“Hold on, sweetie,” Chris said, running his hands along Vin’s arms and legs, to see if anything was broken. “Okay, Laurie, I’m going to turn my friend on his side and then you can crawl out. Go slowly, okay, he’s hurt.”

“Okay,” she replied.

Vin groaned as Chris slowly rolled him onto his side, so he didn’t really pay attention when Laurie crawled out and stood up. He didn't see her run over to where Nathan was now working on her mother as best he could without moving Ezra.

“Stay still, Vin,” Chris warned as he held Vin’s arm to keep him from turning over. “You took a couple of good hits, don’t want you to move until the paramedics get a look at you.” He relaxed a bit when Vin gave a slight nod. At least so far, it seemed Vin might not be too badly injured.

A scream pierced the air and Chris turned in time to see the six year old crumple to the ground near Ezra and her mother.


Chapter 4

Boulder - 2010

Emily and Lauren slipped their shoes on and headed out to the parking lot. They didn't see Summer Van Horn, the manager of the gym and one-time girlfriend of Steve Tanner follow them out. She knew those two girls weren't the best of friends and wondered what on earth they were up to.

 Lauren and Emily stopped at the top of the stairs leading up to the entrance of The Rock, Lauren tossing a dramatic wave toward the parking lot where they both saw Emily's mom get into the Tanner SUV.

 "I told you," Lauren said, frowning as her dad kissed Chloe.

 Emily shrugged. "I never suggested otherwise," she said turning back to the door. She saw Summer watching them and tapped Lauren's arm. "We should get back inside."

 Lauren glanced at her and then saw Summer and smiled brightly. She still preferred Summer over Chloe any day, so tried to stay on Summer's good side.

 Tires squealed behind them and the sound of metal on metal had all three ladies looking back at the parking lot to see what had happened.

The front bumper of a dingy brown van and the right rear tire of Steve's SUV were apparently locked together.


 Steve started the engine, waiting until Chloe shut the door to lean over the console and give her a kiss. “That’s some old friend you have there,” he commented wryly.

Chloe sighed. “We grew up together, you know, the boy next door. We were friends and I guess he might have had a crush on me, but we never dated. After I met Emily’s father, we sort of lost touch, until I got a few letters from him while he was in prison.”

Steve backed the SUV out of the parking place. “Still no idea why he came to you for help?”

Chloe shook her head. “No, but somehow he heard we were dating and decided I could get the money he wanted from you.” She touched his arm. “I’m so sorry, Steve.”

He gave her a gentle grin. “It’s not your fault, Chloe. This guy sounds like a real nut job. I…”

He was interrupted by an abrupt jolt as the back end of the SUV was shoved violently to the left. Steve and Chloe were both jerked hard, Steve hitting his head on the driver’s side door window. Chloe gasped, her seatbelt cutting into her side as she was thrown further over the center console.

Steve automatically slammed on the brake and put the vehicle in park as soon as they stopped. He tentatively touched his head where it had hit the glass as he turned to ask Chloe if she was okay and saw two men outside the passenger door. One of them opened the door, reached in to undo Chloe’s seatbelt and dragged her out by one arm while Steve tried to gather his senses.

“Hey!” he shouted, struggling to get out of his seatbelt. Before he even realized what he was doing, Steve was on the other side of the car, dragging one of the men off Chloe.

Someone grabbed Steve’s arm and he turned, instinctively jabbing his elbow back. A grunt and loosening of the grip was his reward, but he now had the first man’s attention as well.

“Run, Chloe,” Steve yelled as he blocked a fist aimed at his face, spun, kicked and punched, somehow holding his own against the two men without even knowing he could.

Chloe watched wide-eyed as Steve landed a blow knocking one of the men out cold. She frowned and opened her mouth to warn him of a third man approaching only to stammer in surprise. “Kenny?”

Steve landed another blow and the second man went to his knees. Steve stood, breathing hard. He looked at his bloodied fists in amazement. How did he know how to fight like that? Chloe’s strangled word got his attention. He raised his eyes to see her staring past him.

Steve turned and saw the man from the photos he’d perused earlier in the day. Kenny Long.

Long frowned at him. “Peters?”

Sirens sounded in the distance.

Steve pointed at the man he’d never met, but who also seemed strangely familiar to him. “Stay back. The police are on their way.”

“Peters?” Long repeated. “What the hell? I thought you were dead.”

Steve frowned. “Do I know you?”

Long laughed wildly. “I’ll say, you son of a bitch. You only ruined my life.” He lifted his hand and pointed a gun at Steve.

Time seemed to slow down. Steve dove to the ground, trying to get out of the line of fire. Pop, pop, pop. The shots didn’t sound real. Screams seemed far away and under water as he gasped, trying to get air. Then the pain hit.


“Kenny, no!” Chloe screamed. Her scream was matched by Lauren’s “Daddy!” as the teen raced across the parking lot.

Long nudged Peters with his foot earning a pained groan. He chuckled then motioned to his men as they slowly regained their feet. “Get her,” he said, pointing at Chloe as Lauren dropped to her knees beside her father. “And her. Somebody’s gonna get me my money,” he said, walking toward the van.

Chloe fought to get away, tears streaking her makeup. “Leave her alone!” she shouted as one of the men caught Lauren around the waist and lifted her off the ground. Lauren struggled, but her fear for her father hampered her efforts.

The van drove away, just ahead of the approaching police cars, with the three men, Chloe Kmetko and Lauren Tanner inside.


Denver - 1999

Chris paced the waiting room, ignoring Nathan’s pointed looks. Both Vin and Ezra had been whisked into the emergency care unit as soon as the ambulance arrived. Ezra had then been taken almost directly into surgery.  They’d received an update on Vin and knew he would be all right. He had been a little further from the explosion. He’d be sore from the multiple lacerations and concussion, but would recover. They hadn’t heard anything on Ezra yet.

Kenny Long had escaped. The other teams were searching for him, but so far, he seemed to have disappeared.

Josiah had managed to contact Maude Standish and surprisingly, she said she would catch the next flight to Denver.

Chris took a seat. He ran a hand through his blond hair and wondered what exactly had happened. The other men that had been arrested at the scene worked for one of Long’s rival ex-bosses. Evidently, Long had been correct in expecting retaliation for his theft of their weapons.

What hadn’t been expected was Long’s use of the military grade missile launcher when he felt cornered. Long had taken out the semi truck and all the weapons inside along with half a dozen of his enemies and several of his own men. Fortunately, injuries on the ATF side were minimal, with Vin and Ezra being the worst.

Long’s girlfriend and her daughter were under protective custody in the hospital. The woman was in detox, so strung out she hardly knew her own name. The girl, Laurie, was being treated for a few abrasions and shock.

Chris stood and started pacing again. Why hadn’t they heard anything about Ezra yet? He cast a glance at Nathan, as if his friend’s medical experience could help him divine the answer to his question. Nathan just shrugged.

Chris looked at his watch. It had been over four hours since they arrived. Each of his inquiries had been met with polite but meaningless answers. “The doctors are with him… He’s in surgery… We’ll let you know as soon as we know something…” Chris shook his head and turned toward the desk yet again. This time he was going to get a real answer, even if he had to get ugly about it.

The elevator chimed and the door slid open. High heels clicked across the floor and a familiar Southern drawl rang out. “What is going on with my son?” Maude Standish demanded.



Chapter 5

Boulder – 2010

Margaret Tanner looked through the observation window in ICU and briefly let her head rest against the glass. Her son lay deathly still on the other side, attached to numerous tubes and wires. She couldn’t hear the beeping noises made by the various monitoring devices, but she could all too easily recall the sounds from memory. Margaret closed her eyes against the tears.

“I’m so sorry, my darlin’ boy.  I thought…” her whispered apology broke off and she straightened, reining in her emotions. Her son, for now, was stable, but her granddaughter and Chloe Kmetko needed help. There was no time for tears and regrets.

Margaret strode from the intensive care unit, pulling her cell phone from her purse as she went. The police were doing what they could, but it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t going to let some two-bit hood get away with this.

She punched in a number on her speed dial, one she had saved at a very high number surrounded by empty slots to keep it from being found by casual perusal, and waited for the line to pick up.

When it did, she said simply, “I… He needs you.”


Chris Larabee hung up the phone, shocked by the call. He rubbed his forehead. It was only thirty minutes to Boulder, but they would need time to pack up and arrange for things while they were gone. He figured they could be on the road within an hour, two at the most.

“Vin!” he shouted, knowing his friend was in the house.

A moment later, Vin stepped into the living room. “You bellowed?” he asked, his disapproving frown changing to concern at the look on Chris’ face. “What’s wrong?”

“We’ve got to call the boys and get to Boulder, pronto,” Chris replied.


The trip to Boulder may have been only thirty minutes, but the six men made the most of that time.

Each of them wore a Blue Tooth and JD and Josiah had laptops up and running. They had decided to bring two vehicles.  While Nathan and Chris drove, Nathan was on the phone to the hospital checking on Ezra’s status. Chris was speaking to Orin Travis to see what strings they could pull and Buck was on the phone to an old friend in the Boulder police department. Vin had called Maude Standish back to let her know they were on their way and see what else she could tell them.

JD had hacked into several different computers, including the Boulder PD and the FBI, who were also involved due to the kidnapping of Lauren Tanner and Chloe Kmetko. Josiah was on his own laptop trying to profile the kidnapper from what little they knew.

They pulled into the parking lot at the Boulder Memorial Hospital, parked and exited the vehicles. Chris looked around the circle of friends.

“Well?” he asked, his gaze landing on JD who was directly to his right.

“According to eye witnesses, an older model brown van ran into the SUV owned by Steve Tanner.”  JD gave the report in a controlled tone that belied the anxious tension he was feeling. He used ‘Tanner’ instead of Ezra to keep himself from racing into the hospital to check on their friend. “Two men got out and grabbed Chloe Kmetko from the passenger side of the SUV. Tanner exited and engaged the two in hand to hand, taking them down before a third man with a gun left the van and threatened Mrs. Kmetko and Mr. Tanner.”

“Mr. Tanner and the third man exchanged words, then the gunman fired three times,” JD paused, swallowed and then went on. “Tanner tried to get out of the way, but was hit. The three men grabbed Mrs. Kmetko and also Lauren Tanner, who had come out of the Rocky Mountain Gymnastic Training Center, known as The Rock, and ran to her father’s side when he was shot. The three men and two ladies left in the van,” JD concluded, a little breathlessly. He shot a look at Buck who patted him on the shoulder.

“Buck?” Chris asked.

“The incident was called in to the Boulder PD via 911 by a Sasha Beloff, the head coach at The Rock. Officers on the scene spoke to a Summer Van Horne and Emily Kmetko, the daughter of Chloe, who saw the incident from right after the crash. Several others were questioned, but they only saw the van racing away,” Buck reported, glancing at his notepad to make sure he had the names correct.

Nathan met Chris’ gaze and sighed. “Ezra took all three bullets, but fortunately two were just grazes, one to the arm and the other across his chest. The third one hit him in the lower right side of his abdomen, a through and through. He’s in ICU in stable condition but hasn’t regained consciousness yet. Evidently he bumped his head when the van hit the SUV and has a concussion as well.” Nathan ran his hand over his smooth head and shrugged. “They expect a full recovery.”

Sighs of relief ran around the circle of friends, then they got back to their briefing.

Josiah spoke up next. “Ms. Van Horne was able to give a sketchy description of the three men. All white males, middle aged, perhaps late thirties to mid forties. The gunman had dark hair and she said was a little taller than Steve… er, Ezra, as far as she could tell. She and Lauren were a good hundred feet away when the van slammed into the SUV.  A call was made to Ezra’s cell phone shortly after the shooting. An officer answered and was told that the ladies would be released for a cool two million. Unfortunately, there’re no other clues to the identity of the kidnappers, though it seems to me that the gunman was the ringleader. I think the other two were simply hired goons,” Josiah finished, unhappy with the lack of information he could give.

Chris nodded. “Vin? Maude have anything to add?”

Vin shook his head. “She wasn’t aware of any problems.” Vin grimaced. “But as usual, she hasn’t been around much. Popped in a few weeks back and met Chloe and Emily, but otherwise only speaks to Ez on the phone once in a while.” He huffed. “She hasn’t changed.”

“Now, Vin,” Josiah chided gently. “This can’t have been easy for her either, no matter how much she pushed for it, Maude’s had to change her entire life as well.”

Vin leveled a Larabee-style glare on Josiah. “Bullshit! She didn’t have to do what she did and you know it. We would have protected him and his kid. She didn’t have to take him away from us!” Vin spat angrily. He turned and started to walk off, but Chris grabbed his arm.

“Hang on, cowboy. Ezra needs us now and that’s all water under the bridge. We’ve got to keep it together if we’re going to find Lauren and Mrs. Kmetko and this jerk who took them,” Chris said, capturing Vin’s gaze with his own.

The Texan dropped his head and took a deep breath. “Sorry, ‘siah, it’s just…”

Josiah lay his hand on Vin’s shoulder and squeezed. “I know, Vin. I feel the same way. We can’t change the past, but maybe we’ve got a shot at a new future.”

Vin looked up, the hope in Josiah’s eyes bringing a small flame of it to Vin’s heart. He smiled slightly and nodded. The smile was infectious and the others looked brighter as well. Maybe they could reunite with their friend through this, even if it was with Steve Tanner and not Ezra Standish.

Chris squeezed Vin’s arm before he released it and offered his own report. “Judge Travis said he’d contact some people he knows in the FBI, see if we can’t get some VIP treatment here. I’m sure Maude’s pulling all the strings she can as well, but a few more won’t hurt. Either way, we are conducting our own investigation, under the radar,” he paused catching each man’s eyes to make sure they agreed. No one argued, they just looked determined.

“All right. Let’s go in and see how Ezra… Steve is doing.” He sighed, trying to wrap his head around calling his old friend by his new name. Ezra had been Steve Tanner for over ten years now, but to his friends in Denver he would always be Ezra Standish. They never called him Steve, they’d had no need since they never thought they’d have a chance to meet Steve Tanner.

Chris strode toward the entrance to the hospital, his friends forming a ‘V’ behind him. As he passed through the automatic doors, he recalled the last time they’d visited Ezra in the hospital.


Denver – 1999

It would be another hour after Maude arrived before they heard anything about Ezra. During that time, Vin had been released, though he refused to go home. It was hard for his friends to believe that Vin had escaped without worse injury when Ezra had been only a few feet behind him and was hurt so badly. Vin’s lacerations had been stitched and the doctor wanted him watched for any signs of complications due to the concussion, but otherwise he was given a clean bill of health.

Chris wanted to stand up and pace some more, or go see what Maude was up to, but he was pinned to his chair by a sleeping Tanner. Vin had succumbed to the pain meds shortly after sitting down beside Chris and ended up leaning with his head against Chris’ arm.

Maude had disappeared after voicing her displeasure in them, the shoddy care the ATF took of its agents, and the lack of information on Ezra’s condition. She was probably off terrorizing the hospital administrator or torturing some poor head nurse, but Chris was uneasy not knowing what she was up to. The woman tended to leave a path of destruction a mile wide wherever she went and his instincts told him something was not right.

The rest of his men sat around the waiting area occupying themselves with various things to keep from wandering the halls in search of answers. Josiah was trying to do a Sudoku puzzle he’d found somewhere with JD ‘helping’ over his shoulder. Buck had slouched down in his chair and appeared to be dozing, but every once in a while, Chris would see one blue eye open to check things out.

Nathan fidgeted in his chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, then back to slouch like Buck, before straightening again. A few times, Chris thought he would rise and go check with the nurse’s station, but Nathan always settled back into the chair again. He knew it was useless to pester the nurses. The staff already knew how anxious the team was for news on Ezra.

Finally, a nurse approached them. Maude appeared from nowhere, just in time to hear the nurse let them know that Ezra was out of surgery and the doctor would be out to see them shortly. Their question of how Ezra was doing received only the response that he had made it through surgery. Everyone resumed their seats to wait, the Sudoku game lying abandoned on a chair. Maude sat as well, but to the untrained eye, she seemed unconcerned to the point of uncaring.


Kenny Long waited. He had followed the ATF agents to the hospital after both of ‘his men’ were air lifted from the scene. One or both of them had to be a plant. After watching the blond agent and his team for the hours since the ‘betrayal’ as he was now starting to think of it, Kenny knew that the long haired man he knew as John Larson was indeed an agent. Vince Peters he wasn’t so sure about.

The agents seemed very worried about him though, too worried for Peters to just be a snitch. Unfortunately, Larson was out of his reach, guard-dogged as he was by the blond man with the deadly glare. Peters… now, he was a different story. Just out of surgery, the man would not be conscious to know who killed him, but at least Kenny would have the satisfaction of taking care of the traitor himself.

A smile curled evilly on his lips, then turned to a contemplative frown. He’d have to hurry, get to Peters before his friends. And it meant leaving Leslie and her brat, but they didn’t matter. He could always find another girl once he was settled in another state, or even Mexico for a while. Just ‘til things cooled down.

Kenny nodded to himself and slipped up the stairs to the surgical ward. He would find out where Peters was recovering and end it quickly.


A middle aged, Hispanic man in green surgical scrubs approached Team 7. “You’re with Ezra Standish?” he asked, offering his hand as Chris and the others stood.

Chris shook his hand as he nodded. The others closed in behind him.

“I’m Dr. Castellanos. We’re settling Mr. Standish into ICU now. I’m afraid he’s in critical condition.”

“I’m his mother,” Maude said, pushing her way to the front to stand beside Chris.

“Mrs. Standish,” the doctor said in greeting. “Your son suffered a hard blow to the head as well as a deep puncture through his upper back.” He paused, “The piece of metal we removed tore an artery causing severe blood loss. We were able to repair the artery and Mr. Standish received several pints of blood during the procedure. His head injury is more severe.”

Maude stiffened as if preparing herself for the worst. Josiah placed a comforting hand on her shoulder only to have it forcefully brushed away. “Go on,” Maude said in a clear and firm voice.

“We relieved a subdural hematoma and placed a drain to help prevent further build up of fluids around his brain,” Dr. Castellanos continued. “The laceration to the back of his head was extensive, exposing the skull along a six inch gash. It’s been sutured and I expect it will heal fine provided there are no other complications.” He sighed, “Mr. Standish is in a coma, his prognosis is not good.”

Maude lifted her chin defiantly. “When can I see him?” she asked, completely ignoring Ezra’s friends around her.

Dr. Castellanos nodded. “Follow me. They should be just about done settling him in. You can visit for a few minutes. One at a time,” he added as he moved toward the elevator.

As they exited on the next floor, a code blue sounded. The surgeon took off at a run, followed by the men of Team 7 and Maude Standish. Only one of them noted the orderly who was calmly moving down the hall toward the elevator as everyone else rushed to the intensive care unit containing Ezra Standish. Vin only noted the man because of the strangely satisfied smile on his face. A face that seemed very familiar, but due to the pounding in his head, the medication in his system, and the worry for Ezra, Vin did not register it as belonging to Kenny Long. It didn’t occur to him the man would be here. He was a wanted felon, after all, and on the run so far as the agents knew.


Half an hour later Team 7 and Maude looked slightly worse for wear, the fear for Ezra beginning to take its toll on even the most professional of poker faces. They had watched anxiously as the surgeon and a seemingly unending flow of staff came and went from Ezra’s unit. New machines were wheeled in and some taken out. Distressful beeps and alarm bells sounded from behind the now curtained ICU window. Unintelligible words gave them no clue other than from the sometimes forceful tones in which they were spoken.

At last, Dr. Castellanos emerged, his face showing more lines of fatigue than before. He took a seat before addressing the crowd. “We’ve called police, though that may seem redundant, but it appears someone tried to kill Mr. Standish,” he explained.

“What?!” seven voices proclaimed.

The doctor held up his hand. “The monitors registered Ezra having decreased oxygen levels. That alerted the nurses who were subsequently in the room with him when he stopped breathing. That was the code blue we heard as we arrived,” he continued. “It took some time to figure out what was wrong. He has been on full life support since surgery because I wanted to make sure he was getting enough oxygen to his brain. At first, I thought it was,” he shrugged, “I’m sorry, I thought he’d had a respiratory or cardiac event, it wouldn’t have been at all surprising, but Ezra’s pulse was still strong he just wasn’t getting any air.”

Castellanos shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the glares he was receiving. He hurried to explain. “We began to suspect an equipment failure and thus brought in additional machines, but they didn’t help. At this point, we started manually breathing for him and his levels improved. Further examination showed that someone had jammed a wad of gauze pads into his respirator tube. It couldn’t have been an accident.”

“When could this have happened?” Chris demanded. “He’s in ICU, I thought the point of intensive care was to watch the patient at all time.”

The doctor nodded. “It is and there were only a few minutes right before the monitors registered the lowered oxygen levels when it could have taken place. The nurses were on a shift change.” He continued defensively, “They were just a few feet away at the desk, but a few minutes are all that would be needed for someone with motive.”

Vin looked at the nurses desk and then back down the hall toward the elevators. Recognition lit in his eyes. “Damn. It was Long. I saw the SOB, damn it!”

“Son of a…” Josiah started, interrupted by JD’s angrily sputtered, “Let’s go find him!”

Buck grabbed his young teammate’s arm. “He’s long gone by now, and there’s already an APB out on him,” Buck advised wearily, giving JD a sympathetic look before he turned to Dr. Castellanos. “How’s Ezra, Doc?”

The surgeon took a deep breath and exhaled. “Unchanged. He’s still on the respirator and in a coma. I don’t know if any additional damage was done due to lack of oxygen or not.”

“Brain damage,” Nathan said softly, voicing the words everyone had been thinking, but didn’t want to say aloud.

“Yes,” Castellanos said. “There’s a very high probability that there will be some damage, but we won’t know how much until he regains consciousness.”

“Or if he regains consciousness,” Nathan added, hating to take the role of devil’s advocate, but someone had to prepare his friends and Ezra’s mother for the worst. “There is a possibility that he won’t wake up at all, isn’t there?”

The doctor nodded. “I’m sorry, but his chances of coming out of the coma, even before this incident were never very good.”

“You don’t know Ezra!” JD said loudly, still fighting on edge from not being able to ‘do’ something about Long. “He… he’s a fighter,” he finished unconvincingly as he looked to his friends for reassurance. Finding only fear in their eyes, JD turned and stalked away.

“We’ll keep you updated, gentlemen, Mrs. Standish,” Dr. Castellanos said. “The police will be here shortly and I need to figure out which of the staff they’ll need to speak with.” He gave a short nod and headed back to the nurse’s station.

“Doctor,” Maude said, moving to catch up with him. “I want my son moved to another facility where his safety isn’t a concern.”

The doctor shook his head, but Chris beat him to an answer.

“You don’t have his power of attorney, Maude. I do and he’s staying right here.”



Chapter 6

Boulder – 2010

Chris shook his head. Ten years ago, he’d thought having Ezra’s power of attorney would protect them from Maude’s machinations. Little did he count on her powers of persuasion and ability to twist events to suit her purpose.

Still, he had agreed with her plan in the end, albeit reluctantly and now it seemed fate had seen fit to prove Maude wrong after all. He just hoped it wasn’t at Ezra’s expense.

His first sight of Maude Standish, AKA Margaret Tanner was much as he expected. As they entered the waiting area outside the private room she’d finagled for Ezra, Maude stood to greet them. She had aged well, still fit and perfectly dressed, though her hair was a medium shade of brown instead of blonde. She had a few more lines on her face, but it was the worry in her eyes that was the most notable difference.

“Maude,” Chris said as he closed the distance between them, taking the hand she offered stiffly at first, then more warmly as she cupped his hand with both of hers in genuine welcome.

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen,” she said, honest emotion in her tone. “I know Steve… Ezra will appreciate it, even though…” she faltered.

“He doesn’t know us from Adam,” Josiah finished a little harshly. He had never truly forgiven Maude for taking Ezra away.

She nodded demurely. “I… I thought I was doing the right thing, Josiah. And he’s been happy,” Maude added as if trying to convince herself.

“Could’ve been happy with us in Denver,” Vin added softly. JD and Buck nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“How is he?” Nathan asked, preferring not to rehash something they couldn’t change.

Maude lifted her chin and smiled gratefully at Nathan. “He’s still unconscious, but the doctor wasn’t concerned. He lost a lot of blood, but the wounds were fortunately not severe.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the door, and then back to the men her son had counted as brothers. “You’ve spoken to the police?”

Chris nodded. “I think we have all the information we need, except who attacked Ezra and took Lauren and Mrs. Kmetko. Any ideas?”

Maude shook her head. “No. Unfortunately, I have not been privy to Steve’s… to my son’s business dealings of late. But it doesn’t make sense that it would be someone related to a case he defended. There actually haven’t been many. I convinced him after his ‘accident’ to take it easy and let his partners take care of the firm. It was easy enough since his head injury left gaps in his memory of the law,” she explained, then hurried on when she saw the disapproval in their eyes.

“There weren’t any links we could find to his work,” Maude stated. “You are free to contact the office, speak to Terry Sloan, if you wish.”

JD opened his laptop and started doing a bit of surfing.

“We need to get some rooms,” Chris said, changing the subject as he turned his attention to Buck.

Maude caught his arm. “You can stay at Steve’s place.” She saw the disapproval in Chris’ eyes and huffed. “I can’t very well go around calling him Ezra when everyone knows him as Steve Tanner, Chris Larabee!”

Chris stared at her for a moment, then sighed and nodded. “I didn’t think it would be this hard,” he admitted.

Maude bit her lip and turned away. “You have every right to hate me, but I honestly thought I was doing what I had to, to protect Ezra and Lauren… and even Leslie.”

Chris sighed again. “All right, let’s just focus on what’s happening right now and leave the past in the past.”

She wiped at her eyes before turning back to face Chris. “All right.” Maude pulled a key from a pocket in her pants suit and handed it to Chris. “Use his house. No one is there right now. I’ll make sure there is plenty of food and that the maid service checks in before coming by. Do you have enough transportation?”

“We’ve got two vehicles, Ma’am,” Vin provided.

Maude nodded. “If you need more, let me know. Consider me a paying client of M7 Investigations.”

Buck grinned. “You don’t even know our rates.”

“Do you doubt my ability to pay?” she asked with a bit more of the sauciness they were used to seeing from Maude Standish.

Buck shook his head. “No, Ma’am.”

“Besides,” JD chimed in, “we wouldn’t charge for this anyway. Ezra’s family.”

Buck groaned, but Maude just chuckled. “I still intend to pay for your services, Mr. Dunne.” She looked back to Chris. “Did you need anything else?”

“Do you have the ransom money?” Chris asked.

Maude nodded. “I’ve liquidated some assets and have it at the bank for safe keeping. Whenever he calls back, we should be good to go. You’ll have to get past the FBI though, they’ve got Steve’s cell phone and that’s the number the kidnapper called with the demands.”

“We’ve got that covered,” Chris assured.

“Who’s got first watch?” Vin asked.

Chris pursed his lips. “Nathan and Buck. I want JD to set us up at Ez… Steve’s house so he and Josiah can keep working on this guy’s identity. Vin and I can go talk to the feebs.”

Tension seemed to flow from Maude’s shoulders. “Thank you. I couldn’t convince the FBI or the police that he needed further protection.” Chris frowned, but let her continue. “They seemed to think that all the kidnapper wanted now was the money, but why do you shoot someone you’re trying to get money out of?” she asked, truly not understanding the motivation.

Chris lifted his eyebrows. “Good question.”

“And you don’t shoot someone three times unless you’re trying to hurt him,” Nathan added. “Seems like there is an element of revenge involved to me.”

“Could it be someone you know, Maude?” Josiah asked.

She thought about it for a long moment. “It is possible, but I can’t think of anyone who would approach revenge on me in this way. It’s almost…”

“Like an after thought,” Josiah finished with a nod.

“Exactly,” Maude agreed. “It’s as if he was after one thing and the shooting was completely unplanned.”

“Steve Tanner is pretty well off, right?” Buck asked. Maude nodded. “Maybe they were after someone to ransom and the shooting was…”

Maude interrupted. “Summer and Emily both agree that the man shot Steve on purpose, it wasn’t an accident. Although they did think that grabbing Lauren was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

“Maybe someone from the ATF?” JD suggested. “Someone Ezra helped put away who recognized him? We know of at least one man it could be.”

Buck jerked around to look at JD. “Long! Damn, I forgot all about him. He’s out on parole.”

Chris’ eyes narrowed. “When did that happen?”

“About a week ago,” JD said disgustedly. “I only found out this morning. We were going to tell you and then…” he waved his hand to indicate the current situation.

Josiah nodded. “He’s one that would fit the profile, but for all we know he’s in Mexico. I’ll contact his parole officer, see where he is supposed to be.”

“Okay,” Chris agreed. He looked at Maude then at his friends. “Let’s get things set up. Vin and I will spell Nathan and Buck in a few hours. Maude, you’re coming with us. I doubt you’ve eaten or rested well since this happened.”

Maude started to protest, but saw the glint in Chris’ eyes and just nodded. Now that these men were here, she felt it was safe to leave Ezra’s side for a time.

Chris took her elbow and started toward the elevator, leaving the others to follow.

Buck met Nathan’s eyes. “I’ll take first watch out here, we can swap in a bit.”

Nathan nodded and entered Ezra’s room. The blinds were closed, Maude’s doing he was sure. He lifted the chart from the end of the bed and read. Everything seemed to be as expected. Nathan finally stopped and took a look at his old friend.

He looked almost the same, a little older of course, a few more laugh lines around the eyes and Buck was going to tease him about his hairline, but otherwise, it was Ezra. Nathan sighed, Steve Tanner. He’d always wondered at the choice of surname, but had never asked.

“Well, Ezra, we are here and we’re your friends. Guess we’ll just have to show you that all over again,” Nathan said with a wry grin. “I just hope you’re easier to convince now than you were when you first joined the team.” He took a seat and watched Ezra breathing. “Can’t wait to introduce you to my two. They’re a few years younger than your Lauren. JD’s the only other one who had kids. You should have seen him when Casey was giving birth…”


“Let… Go… of… me!” Chloe Kmetko shouted, trying to shrug off the firm grasp the goon had on her arms as he pushed her ahead of him. “Lauren?” she called out, unable to see anything thanks to the blindfold they’d put on after dragging her into the van.

“Chloe?” a subdued Lauren Tanner said.

“It’s okay, honey,” Chloe reassured, wishing she believed it herself. “Kenny! Hey! Stop pushing!” she said as the man behind her gave one final shove and she fought to keep from falling. A moment later she heard a small cry from Lauren and then a door slammed.

Chloe tore off the blindfold, grateful that they hadn’t been tied up as well, and moved to Lauren who sat on the floor sobbing into her hands. Chloe knelt beside her and pulled the girl close. “Hey. Hey, now, it’s going to be all right, Lauren.”

“He… he shot my dad,” Lauren stammered. “He’s… what if…”

“Now, now, sweetie, your dad is…” Chloe swallowed, not wanting to lie out right. “I’m sure he’s fine. Summer was there, she’ll have made sure he was taken care of,” she pulled back to look Lauren in the eyes. “Right?”

Lauren pressed her lips together, trying not to cry. Her mother had died not all that long ago, and even though she never really knew her, the pain had been unbearable. She couldn’t stand the thought of losing her father, too. “I’m scared,” she admitted, allowing Chloe to pull her back into a hug.

“I know,” Chloe said softly. “I am, too.”


In another room, on the other side of the abandoned house, Kenny Long was fit to be tied. He stomped angrily back and forth, trying to figure out what had happened. He stopped suddenly and turned to look at his two partners.

“Why didn’t you tell me Tanner was Peters?”

“Who is Peters?” Sam Whethers asked. He hadn’t known Kenny very long, just a few weeks, but the man had never seemed so unhinged before.

“Tanner! Tanner is Peters,” Kenny shouted. “He’s supposed to be dead, how did he find me?”

“Um, boss?” the other man, Mike Johnson interrupted. “You were the one who picked Tanner. We just did what you asked.”

Kenny stared for a moment then rationality seemed to come back to him. “Yeah. Okay, but why is he here pretending to be Tanner?”

“It might help if we knew who Peters is,” Sam supplied, a little sarcastically.

“Peters was the jack Fed who got me put in prison in the first place!” Kenny replied angrily. “I killed him… well, I thought I did. He should have died.”

“Are you sure it’s the same guy?” Mike asked. “He didn’t seem to know you.”

“Oh, it’s him all right. Must be undercover for something. Those bastard ATF agents thought they could fool me,” Kenny said, getting worked up again. “But I fooled them… At least, for a bit. Damn border patrol.”

Sam shared a look with Mike then spoke, “Kenny, what are we gonna do? You want to go through with this ransom, you need to call them back and tell them where to take the money. If you don’t, then we need to get rid of these two and split.”

Kenny looked up, blinked and nodded. “Okay, yeah, let me talk to Chloe then I’ll decide.”


The door slammed open causing both Lauren and Chloe to squeak in alarm. Chloe frowned when she saw who it was and stood up.

“How dare you!” she said, moving toward him. “It was bad enough when you tried to get me to extort money from Steve, but to kidnap us! What happened to you, Kenny? You were a nice guy once.”

“Ha!” Kenny exclaimed. “That was a long time ago and I was a loser. I had nothing. You wouldn’t even date me. I’m a powerful man now. And soon I’ll be a rich man.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “You weren’t a loser, but you are now. Let us go,” she demanded, not really believing he would, but hopeful.

Kenny chuckled. “Not until I get my money.” His eyes narrowed. “What are you doing with Tanner anyway? Do you even know who he really is?”

Chloe frowned, uncertain what game Kenny was playing. “He’s a kind, caring man and I… I love him.” She heard a small gasp from Lauren, but kept her attention on Kenny.

Long laughed. “You really don’t know, do you? He’s a Fed. An undercover cop. I don’t know what he’s doing here in Boulder, and I don’t really care, as long as he gets me my money.”

“A cop?” Chloe repeated. “You’re c…” she stopped herself seeing the deranged glint in Kenny’s eyes. It probably wouldn’t take much to set him off. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Steve’s a lawyer.”

Kenny stared at her then shrugged. “Lawyer, cop, what’s the difference. As long as he’s rich… He is rich, right?” He looked down at Lauren.

Chloe stepped forward, blocking his gaze from Lauren. “Yes, Kenny. Steve is rich, but you sh-shot him,” she stammered a bit as she remembered.

Kenny waved a hand dismissively. “I killed him before and he’s still here. He’ll get the money. I’m going to call back and give him instructions. You behave and we’ll let you go after I get my money.”

Chloe watched in disbelief as he left, closing the door behind him. She blinked, unable to understand exactly what Kenny believed.

“He’s crazy,” Lauren said decisively.

Chloe nodded. “I’m afraid so.” She looked around the room for the first time. “We need to see if there’s a way out of here.”



Chapter 7

Boulder 2010

Buck put down the magazine he’d been flipping through and stood to stretch. He’d swapped places with Nathan a little over an hour ago, which meant their replacements would be here within the hour. He wasn’t sure who it would be, probably Chris and Vin since JD and Josiah were the only ones who had any leads to follow up on at the moment.

Buck sighed, his need to move having taken him to the side of Ezra’s bed. He sure had missed the enigmatic Southerner. He sighed again. Even though they were getting a chance to get to know Ezra… Steve, again, it wouldn’t be the same. “It won’t be the same, pard,” he said softly wrapping a gentle hand around Ezra’s wrist.

He startled when the hand clasped his wrist. Buck looked at the hand and then up to Ezra’s face. Dazed green eyes stared at him for a long moment, then tracked around the room before returning to Buck who smiled broadly.

“Hey, there,” he said, not sure what Ezra’s response would be to a stranger. ‘Steve,’ got to remember to call him ‘Steve,’ Buck admonished himself.

Ezra blinked and licked his lips. “Water?” he rasped.

Buck’s grin grew and he nodded, releasing his hold on Ezra’s wrist as he stood to pour a glass. Ezra’s hand didn’t release his wrist. Buck turned back to see confusion on the pale face. “Gotta let me have my arm if you want a drink, pard,” he teased.

Ezra didn’t let go, he squeezed Buck’s wrist tighter as multiple emotions crossed his face.

“What’s wrong?” Buck barely caught himself before saying ‘Ezra.’ He grasped his friend’s wrist again and put his other hand on his shoulder. “I can get the doctor.”

The confused green eyes closed tightly as Ezra shook his head. “What happened, Buck?” he finally asked, opening his eyes again.

Buck opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He swallowed hard. “You know who I am?”

Ezra frowned and let go of Buck’s arm to rub his forehead. “Of course, Buck. Why am I in the hospital?”

Buck couldn’t think of what he should do. He should call Nathan in, or the doctor, but all he wanted to do was keep Ezra talking to make sure this wasn’t a dream. He grabbed the pitcher of water from the table and poured a glass, taking a big gulp from it himself before refilling it and offering it to Ezra.

The act of sitting up and drinking was obviously painful and took a lot out of Ezra. His eyes closed as he lay back down.

“Just rest, Ez,” Buck said with a smile thinking Ezra had drifted back to sleep.

Green eyes popped open and Ezra bolted up. “Chloe!” he gasped, wrapping his arms around his stomach as his wound protested the abrupt movement.

“Hey!” Buck exclaimed, catching Ezra around the shoulders to keep him from falling back and causing himself more pain. “Don’t worry, we’re on it, Ez. Chris and the others are looking for them as we speak.”

Ezra breathed raggedly against the pain, but finally was able to get some control back. He turned his head, confusion on his face again. “Buck? What happened? I’m… I’m so confused. I’m not dreaming am I? Am I undercover?” He shook his head. “No, I am Steve Tanner… but… I’m also Ezra Standish.” He looked into Buck’s eyes. “Right? I’m not crazy… am I?”

Buck gave Ezra a slight squeeze and shook his head. “No, Ezra, just a little lost.” He chuckled. “God, it’s good to see you again.”

“Please, Buck,” Ezra begged. “What’s going on? How did I end up here?”

“You were shot, Ezra,” Buck said. He located the controls for the bed and raised it so that Ezra could lean back comfortably.

Ezra sighed as he settled back, then frowned. The events from earlier in the day replayed. “Kenny Long. He shot me.” He ran hand through his hair. “He took Chloe?”

“Yeah,” Buck said, uncertain whether Ezra could take any more. He decided not to mention Lauren at the moment. “You’re sure it was Long?”

Ezra nodded. “Yes, he was blackmailing Chloe, trying to get money from me through her. He recognized me, was surprised to see me,” Ezra said, sending a questioning glance at Buck.

“It’s a long story, pard,” Buck said scrubbing the back of his neck.

“I appear to have plenty of time,” Ezra replied, sounding so much like himself that Buck couldn’t help but grin. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”

Buck settled his hip on the edge of Ezra’s bed, his grin undiminished. “I never thought I’d see you again, Ezra. We were preparing ourselves to get to know Steve Tanner.” He held up a hand as Ezra started to ask another question. “Do you remember the meet we were going on to get Long?”

Ezra frowned, tilting his head then rubbing at his forehead. “Vaguely. I know we were supposed to meet his buyers in the middle of nowhere. Did we succeed in apprehending the miscreant?”

Buck shook his head. “No. One of Long’s ex-bosses showed up, cut your caravan off. You and Vin got Long’s mistress and her daughter away from the area, but not far enough from the truck to avoid injury when Long blew it up.”

Ezra closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, the sadness in them made Buck’s heart ache. “Leslie. She was there, with Lauren. I knew her from college, didn’t realize she was pregnant when we broke up. Leslie was always trying the newest drug back then. I couldn’t…” He licked his lips. “I loved her, but I couldn’t live with a drug addict and she didn’t want to get clean at the time.”

Buck patted his leg in understanding.

“I didn’t know she was pregnant or I would have stayed. At least to get custody of Lauren…” Ezra trailed off. “She’s dead,” he said, “killed by a drunk driver not so long ago. I… I think she really was clean, but I wouldn’t let her see Lauren. She’d let me down so many times.”

“It’s okay, Ezra. You had to protect your daughter.”

Ezra nodded, but didn’t look up. “What happened?” he repeated.

“You and Vin were injured when the truck exploded,” Buck continued. “You made it through surgery, but were in a coma and the doctor… he wasn’t very optimistic. Before we even got a chance to visit you, Long tried to kill you. He had escaped from the scene in all the commotion. He came to the hospital and tried to suffocate you, almost succeeded, but fortunately all the monitors you were hooked up to let the nurses know when you were in trouble.”

Ezra’s eyes were wide with consternation as he watched Buck relive the past. He could tell from the older man’s unembellished phrasing that Buck was upset by the memories. “Vin was all right?”

Buck nodded distractedly. “Banged up and cut up, but okay. He saw Long at the hospital right before your alarms went off. Vin still thinks he should have been able to do something…” Ezra snorted, causing Buck to huff in agreement. “Yeah, we all are too good at taking credit for things we can’t control. Anyway, the authorities did eventually catch Long. He was in prison for everything we could throw at him, including attempted murder of a federal agent, but somehow he got paroled a few weeks back.”

“How did I end up as Steve Tanner?” Ezra interjected with a yawn. He didn’t think he could remain awake much longer.

“Maude,” Buck said sourly. “She was there when Long tried to kill you. Somehow she found out about Leslie and Lauren.” He met Ezra’s eyes. “When you first woke up, you weren’t responsive to much. Maude convinced us that you should be moved to protect you from Long who was still on the loose. When you did start to ‘recognize outside stimuli,’” Buck said, emphasizing the last bit as if it were something he’d memorized, “you didn’t know who you were, didn’t recognize anyone. The doctors didn’t expect you to recover your memory. Maude… well, she got Chris’ power of attorney overturned and proceeded to reinvent you.”

Buck sighed. “We didn’t really have any way to prevent her from doing it. And until Long was caught, it actually seemed like a good idea. By the time he was in jail, it was too late, you were Steve Tanner.”

Ezra let his head rest back against the pillow thinking about his life as Steve Tanner, as Lauren’s father. He shook his head. Steve Tanner could be a real bastard. But, he was also Lauren’s father and Ezra wouldn’t give that up, even if he hadn’t been the best father possible. “I wish she would have let you continue to be part of my life,” he said sadly. “I could have used your assistance. Lauren needed the guidance her six uncles would have given. I screwed up, Buck.”

“Ah, come on, Ezra, can’t be that bad. Lauren’s an Olympic-bound gymnast, you’re a successful business man,” Buck cajoled.

“Cold-blooded bastard most would say,” Ezra corrected ruefully. “And I’m afraid Lauren’s a bit spoiled.”

Buck chuckled. “Well, it’s a good thing ol’ Uncle Buck is here then. Between the six of us, we’ll straighten you two out.” He paused. “Seriously, though, Maude was right about not letting us form a connection to Steve while Long was still on the loose. Would have defeated the purpose of giving you a new life.”

“And after?” Ezra asked.

“You had a long recovery, Ezra. And Lauren, too.” He raised his hand to forestall Ezra’s concern. “She wasn’t hurt badly, but emotionally it was hard for her. Leslie was going through a detox program, you were introduced as her father, but didn’t even know yourself, let alone your daughter.” Buck shook his head. “Trying to add us back into the equation too soon would have been difficult and by the time things were ‘normal’ and safe, well, you weren’t Ezra anymore.”

Ezra frowned. “You didn’t even try?”

Buck shook his head vehemently. “No! Of course we did. We all visited in those early days. Kept hoping you would recognize us or at least remember us from one visit to the next. You had some real memory problems at first. Once you were able to hold a thought from one day to the next, Maude said it upset you to see us.” Buck frowned. “Maybe that was a sign that you did remember, maybe we should have insisted on seeing you, but she made it sound like we were detrimental,” Buck made finger quotes to emphasize the word,” to your recovery. Who knows, maybe our visits were keeping you from healing,” he tapped his head, “up here.”

“I should probably be angry with Moth…” Ezra trailed off as the door opened and Nathan came into the room followed by Chris and Vin.

Nathan looked at Buck with a frown. “Why didn’t you tell me he was awake?”

Buck smiled broadly and shrugged. “Sorry, Nate. Me and Ez got to talkin’.”

Nathan, Chris and Vin shot Buck a glare before casting a look at Ezra to see what his reaction would be.

“Mr. Tanner?” Vin asked, his tone uncertain.

Ezra shared a brief look with Buck and suddenly it was as if the last ten years had never occurred. Buck bit his lip at the flash of mischief in those green eyes and tried to keep his smile from cracking his face. It didn’t matter though, because Ezra had already shifted into his game face and their three friends were too caught up in seeing the Southerner awake and coherent for the first time in a decade to pay attention to Buck.

“Yes,” Ezra replied calmly, “I’m Steve Tanner.”

Vin blinked, not sure what he’d been expecting, only that the lack of Ezra’s southern drawl was not it.

Chris stepped forward. “Mr. Tanner, I’m not sure what Buck,” he indicated his old friend with a small wave of his hand, “has been telling you, but…”

Ezra frowned. “Mr. Wilmington has painted quite an unusual picture. I’m not really sure what to make of it,” he replied looking from Chris to Vin and then to Nathan as if expecting an answer.

Buck sat down hard in the chair trying not to laugh. Chris frowned at him, but Buck had a hand over his face.

“Well,” Chris continued, trying to figure out what he should say, “whatever he told you…”

Ezra interrupted again, noting that Vin and even Nathan were now paying more attention to Buck’s quivering form than to himself. “While I admit, I still don’t have all the pieces, I must say that,” he suddenly dropped back into his normal southern drawl, “I’ve always been able to rely on Buck to tell me the God’s honest truth when it really mattered.”

Chris ignored Buck’s uncontrolled, almost hysterical laughter as he stared deep into Ezra’s eyes. Vin and Nathan moved up beside him, doing the same.

Ezra didn’t hide the feelings he had for these men who had become like brothers to him. Those feelings showed clearly on his face to anyone who knew him, and as one, they moved closer to the bed.

Buck watched from his chair, a sappy grin plastered on his face. He didn’t bother to wipe the tears from his eyes. It was just too good to be true.

“Ezra?” Nathan finally asked. “You really remember us?”

“Yes, Nathan,” Ezra said meeting the black man’s intent gaze for a long moment before he looked to the blond. “Chris,” he said simply then shifted his eyes to his namesake. “Vin.”

Vin shook his head, a slow smile blooming on his face.

Ezra could no longer hold back his own grin. It felt so good to see them again.

The three men smiled back, unable to resist the Southerner’s honest welcoming grin, only to watch it fade as Ezra recalled the situation.

“Any word on Chloe?” he asked.

Chris shook his head in response, but also to help himself shift gears to the more serious matter at hand. “Haven’t heard from the kidnappers since just before you went into surgery.” He glanced at Nathan, “What, about six hours ago?” Nathan nodded. “They were fine then,” Chris continued. “The kidnapper showed us a short video of them both together before he hung up. Said he’d only talk to you.”

Ezra nodded leaning back against the pillows as his body began to protest the activity. His mind also started to fog over from the pain medication and blood loss. “Them?” he asked after a long moment.

Buck, now serious as well, sent a look to Chris and shook his head. Chris sighed, understanding that Ezra hadn’t known about Lauren’s involvement.

“Ezra,” he said putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “They got Chloe and Lauren.”

Ezra’s eyes widened and for a moment the room was still. Then, Ezra flipped back the sheets over his legs and swung them off the bed. He had to grab the side rail to steady himself, and that gave Chris and the others time to stop his progress.

“Ezra,” Nathan said, “stop! You can’t be going anywhere just yet.”

“Stand aside, Nathan,” Ezra hissed, trying to catch his breath against the pain in his side, but refusing to settle back in the bed.

“We don’t even know where they are,” Vin added, stepping in to help keep the stubborn Southerner in the bed.

“Damn it, Ezra,” Buck said, gripping the younger man’s arm. “Listen to us,” he pleaded.

Ezra stopped struggling, mainly because his burst of energy had left him light-headed and weaker than before. He allowed his friends to help him back into bed as Chris explained.

“JD’s working with the FBI as we speak, trying to track the cell phone signal,” Chris said, wondering if they’d be having this much trouble with Steve Tanner and deciding that they probably would. “The feebs graciously accepted our help after a quick call to the Judge who pulled some strings for us.”

Ezra looked up at Chris. “Did you see the video?”

Chris nodded. “They were scared, but not hurt.” He snorted. “Actually, they looked pretty pissed off,” he added with a smile.

Ezra nodded, his eyes closing of their own volition. “Find them… find my daughter… please.” He forced his eyes open one last time, catching each man’s eyes.

“You got my word as a Tanner,” Vin said, a slight smirk on his face. “From one Tanner to another, we’ll get ‘em back.”

Ezra smiled and faded off to sleep.

Chris turned to Buck. “What the hell happened?” he asked quietly, not wanting to wake Ezra… Ezra! Not Steve Tanner, but Ezra Standish. He still couldn’t believe it.

“I don’t know, Chris,” Buck said, grinning ear to ear. “He was a little befuddled when he first woke up, but then he looked right at me and said my name. Could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Shhhh,” Nathan admonished as Buck got louder and louder with his excitement.

Buck nodded and continued more softly. “He remembered going out after Long all those years ago, though the details were fuzzy for him.” Buck’s smile dropped as he went on. “Said it was Long who has Chloe and Lauren. Was Long who shot him in the parking lot.”

“Damn,” Vin said. “If I ever find out how he got paroled…”

“Later for that, Vin,” Nathan said. “Are you sure it was Ezra?”

“You heard him, Nate,” Buck said, “that was our Ezra. One hundred percent, right down to the accent.”

“Maude did say he’d pretty much lost the accent since the accident,” Chris reminded Nathan.

“Yeah,” Nate said, rubbing one hand over his smooth head. “I just can’t believe it.” He looked up. “I’m damn glad he’s back, just can’t explain it. I suppose I should go let the doctor know…”

Chris caught his sleeve as Nathan turned to go. “Call Josiah and JD, let them know, then you and Buck head out and get some rest.”

“Maybe we should wait ‘til he wakes up again to say anything,” Vin suggested. All eyes landed on him. “Just in case.”

Just in case it was a fluke. No one wanted to voice that thought though.

Chris sighed. “Nate, tell the doctor he woke up and… hell, there’s no way we can keep this from Josiah and JD. They’ll take one look at Buck and know something’s up.”

The others, including Buck, chuckled at the truth of that statement. The man was practically vibrating with his excitement.

“Just tell ‘em what happened when you get back to the house,” Chris advised. “We’ll call you when he wakes up again.”

“Dang,” Buck complained. “I almost hate to leave.”

“Come on, Buck,” Nathan said, grabbing his arm and heading for the door. He looked back at Chris and Vin. “We’ll call you if anything comes up.”

Chris nodded and sank into the chair Buck had been using.

“We should call Maude,” Vin said.

“No, not yet,” Chris replied scrubbing one hand over his face. “Let’s just wait for him to wake up.”

Vin nodded, dropping into the other chair by Ezra’s bed. There was no way he was going to miss seeing Ezra wake up again. He’d waited for ten long years for this moment.



Chapter 8

Denver 1999

Vin paced outside of Ezra’s room, the events of the last few months chasing around his mind as he tried, one last time, to find a better solution than the one Maude had come up with.

Thanksgiving had come and gone and now it was almost Christmas. After almost two months, Team 7 had only one thing to be thankful for. Ezra Standish was still alive.

Ezra had come out of the coma four days after Long tried to kill him in the hospital, but his friends’ rejoicing had been short-lived. The agile-minded undercover agent couldn’t seem to hold a thought through the end of a sentence. Besides the pounding headache that plagued him despite medication, Ezra’s memory was full of holes. He didn’t seem to recognize anyone except for his mother, and sometimes not even Maude.

Each time he woke, they wondered, hoped and prayed that Ezra’s mind would have healed enough to recognize them. Each time they were disappointed. He didn’t even remember being reintroduced to anyone from one wakeful session to the next.

There were small signs of improvement, but overall, confusion and pain ruled Ezra’s world.

Meanwhile, Kenny Long was still on the loose and Maude was fighting Chris’s power of attorney with every resource at her disposal. She didn’t want her son to stay where Long might find him again and finish the job. She argued with Chris about moving Ezra, threatened him, and finally begged him, and when none of her words had any effect, she followed through with her threat and called a lawyer.

Vin sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. It hadn’t taken that long for Maude to find a sympathetic judge to hear her case. Even Judge Travis’ involvement hadn’t swayed the judge’s decision. Maude was given full custody of her son, who obviously couldn’t care for himself in this state, and Maude began to make plans for Ezra’s future.

Maude had moved Ezra to Colorado Springs, admitting him into the finest long term care facility and hiring the best doctors and staff to oversee his recovery. She had given her son a new identity to help keep Long from being able to find him and had arranged for Leslie to enter a detox program under threat of losing custody of Lauren to her paternal grandmother.

At first, Ezra’s six friends had been allowed visitation. They’d come in small groups each weekend, spending a few quiet hours with their friend. Ezra appeared to be making progress during the week; however his weekend visitors seemed to upset him. After seeing Ezra’s progress backslide following every weekend with his friends, Maude and his doctor had deemed Team 7 detrimental to Ezra’s recovery and banned them from seeing him.

Another series of arguments ended with Maude threatening to get restraining orders.  Chris and the others, swayed only slightly by Nathan’s reluctant suggestion that it might be better to let Ezra have time to heal, had finally agreed to leave their friend in Maude’s questionable care.

Vin moved restlessly around the waiting room as each of his friends took their turn saying good-bye to Ezra. Not that he would remember the conversation, but they needed some closure. Hopefully it wouldn’t be a permanent good-bye, but the doctors weren’t painting a hopeful picture. It was unlikely they would ever see the real Ezra Standish again.

JD was in with Ezra now, the last one to take his turn before Vin. The others had already left the hospital, promising to meet at the Saloon in Denver in a few hours, after they’d had a chance to compose themselves.

Vin grinned sadly to himself. Ezra had rubbed off on all of them, and vice versa. It just wasn’t going to be the same without him.

Heels clicking on the linoleum floor caused Vin to turn to see who was coming. The nurses all wore rubber soled shoes. He wasn’t really surprised to see Maude heading toward Ezra’s room. Vin moved quickly to the door, blocking her way.

“JD’s sayin’ his good-byes,” Vin said by way of explanation.

Maude took a step back and nodded. “Of course, I can come back after you’re finished, Mr. Tanner.” She turned to go.

“Maude,” Vin said, catching her arm. She looked at him, frowning at what she expected to be another argument to allow them to continue visiting Ezra. Vin swallowed, trying hard to control his emotions. “If he ever remembers… You let us know,” he said, not quite pleading.

Maude blinked back the tears she’d been fighting and offered a bright smile. “I’ll keep in touch,” she promised, meeting Vin’s eyes.

He held her gaze for a moment then nodded and released her arm. She gave a final nod and walked away. It would be the last time any of them saw her for over a decade.


Boulder, 2010

He woke to the sound of overly loud whispers and movement around him. Instinct and years of training kept his eyes closed as he tried to determine what was happening. His head and side hurt, and there was a sharp stinging pain along his arm and chest, but overriding it all was a powerful thirst and an even stronger curiosity.

The hushed voices seemed to be getting louder.

“What the hell are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at the house waiting for Long to call back,” one voice said.

“It’s okay. The agent in charge agreed that since Ezra was awake and aware, it would be better if he took the call. ‘Course he’s not awake right now, but…” another voice prattled accompanied by a sudden loud clatter.

Shh! You keep making so much noise and you’ll wake him up,” a third voice reprimanded.

How many people are in my room anyway? Isn’t this a hospital? He listened carefully and heard the beeping of monitors nearby. Yep, definitely a hospital. So, how did I end up here and where exactly is ‘here?’

“Watch out, Buck,” JD demanded, “That computer’s not made of rubber, you know. It takes a gentle touch.”

“I’ve got a gentle touch, kid,” Buck retorted with ‘that’ tone in his voice.

Memories suddenly came flooding back.

Ezra opened his eyes slowly, grateful that the lights were dimmed. “If you gentlemen insist on making so much noise and interrupting the much needed rest of the injured, the least you could do is fetch me a glass of water,” he drawled, grinning as several familiar faces came into view.

“Ezra?” JD asked, pushing his way past the others to stand beside the bed.

“Hello, JD,” Ezra replied with a smile.

JD bent down and hugged Ezra, gently at first and then as Ezra’s arms circled him, more firmly. “God, Ezra. When Buck said you were back, I wanted to believe him, but…” he straightened. “I just couldn’t believe after so long, not without seeing you.”

Nathan picked up a glass of water with a straw in it. “Sip this slowly, okay?” Nathan asked, waiting until Ezra nodded to hold the straw to his lips.

“Stand aside, boy,” Buck said, playfully pulling JD back and taking his place. “I gotta get me some of that,” he said, gently pushing Nathan and the almost empty glass away from Ezra before he leaned in for a hug of his own.

Slightly hysterical laughter filled the room as Ezra rolled his eyes, but returned Buck’s hug as well.

“We didn’t really get a chance to say hello before,” Nathan said, good-naturedly shoving Buck as the ladies man stepped back. “Let me raise the bed a bit for you,” he said, putting words to action then holding out his hand.

Ezra took it, but tugged Nathan into a hug. Nathan was grinning as he straightened.

“Nice look,” Ezra said, lifting his hand to his head to indicate Nathan’s smooth pate. “Is it natural, or by choice?”

Buck and JD chuckled.

Nathan sent a mock glare their way as he replied, giving Ezra a rueful grin. “A bit of both. But Rain likes it.”

Ezra nodded. “Then that’s all that matters.” He looked beyond the three men by the bed to see Chris, Vin and Josiah waiting. “Chris?” Ezra asked, wondering why they hadn’t come forward.

Chris gave Buck, JD and Nathan a mock glare that encouraged them, laughingly, to move away from the bed. He then motioned toward Josiah and Vin. Josiah stepped up next, while Vin seemed to hang back reluctantly.

Josiah’s bear hug was tempered in deference to Ezra’s injuries, but no less heart-felt. Ezra returned the older man’s hug, squeezing his eyes shut against the unexpected moisture. The reality of just how long they’d been apart suddenly hitting him.

“We have missed you, son,” Josiah whispered hoarsely as he pulled out of the hug, only to rest one hip on the edge of the bed. He wiped a hand across his eyes and grinned unashamedly at Ezra. “Damn, but it’s good to see you.”

Ezra grinned back. “Damn it, Josiah, don’t cry,” he admonished dashing away a tear of his own. “This is a happy occasion.”

The others chuckled, except for Vin who had been slowly backing toward the door. The sound of it opening had everyone turning their head in time to see the Texan slip through.

Ezra frowned worriedly at Chris.

“Stay here and say hello to Ezra, Chris,” Josiah said. “I’ll bring brother Vin back,” he added tipping his head toward Ezra. “You can get Ezra up to speed.”

Chris nodded and watched the profiler leave. He stared at the floor for a long moment before the unnatural silence in the room made it clear they were all waiting for him to say something. He turned and saw Ezra’s worried frown. Chris smiled reassuringly and stepped up to the bed.

Vin’ll be fine, he’ll be back. He’s just…” Chris trailed off, not sure exactly how to put it.

“Feeling guilty?” Ezra asked glancing at Buck who just nodded. “There’s nothing for him to feel guilty about,” Ezra continued.

Chris nodded. “I know. He’ll be all right once you talk to him,” he added with a wry grin.

Ezra raised an eyebrow then stuck his hand out. Chris raised his own eyebrows and reached out, but grasped Ezra’s forearm instead of his hand. Once he felt Ezra’s grip on his own arm, Chris tugged the man into a hug.

Ezra’s eyes widened at the unexpected show of… of… well, he wasn’t quite sure what it was, all he knew was that it felt good, like he was being welcomed home after a long journey. And in a way that was exactly what had occurred. Ezra returned the hug, brief though it was and met Chris’ eyes as he stood back his hand still locked on Ezra’s arm.

Chris had never seemed to need many words to communicate, especially with Vin or Buck, and now Ezra saw just what his absence had meant to this seemingly solitary man. Seemingly because in truth Chris was a man who held his family and friends close to his heart and when one of them was ripped from him, it left a hole. Ezra finally understood that he had been and still was a member of that elite group of people Chris considered his own and that look in his eyes spoke volumes.

After a moment that seemed to last forever, they both released their grip on the other’s arm. Ezra smiled as he looked around at his friends, then his eyes landed on the computer and he looked at JD.

The younger man’s smile faltered and he fidgeted. “I’d better finish setting this up,” he said, turning to put his words into action.

“What did you mean about routing the call here, JD?” Chris asked.

 “Could I have some more water, please?” Ezra asked, knowing better than to try and reach the bedside table, but he was so thirsty.

Nathan nodded and refilled the glass. They all knew how dehydrated you got after being under anesthesia.

Buck moved out of JD’s way and met Chris’ eyes. “Agent Jefferson suggested we bring some equipment here so we can trace the signal when Long calls back. The man is crazy, Chris. He insisted that he talk to Ezra… well, he called him ‘Peters.’ He wouldn’t accept anything else. We told him that Ezra had been badly injured and was in surgery, that he might even die,” Buck continued with a quick apologetic glance to Ezra. “But he insisted he speak to Peters. Said he had killed Peters before so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Ezra sighed. “Long never did seem to have all his faculties, even ten years ago. I doubt the time in prison did him any good.”

JD nodded as he turned on the computer and faced the others. “He kept ranting about killing you before, never called you Tanner, always Peters. I think he’s lost it.”

“Do you think he’ll hurt Lauren and Chloe?” Ezra asked worriedly, his hands plucking anxiously at the bed covering. The other four shook their heads bringing an amused huff from Ezra. “There is no need to coddle me, gentlemen. I am quite aware of the danger of the situation,” he said softly.

Nathan squeezed his shoulder, but didn’t say anything. He couldn’t imagine what he’d be feeling if Rain or his boys had been kidnapped. He saw the look on JD’s face and knew he was thinking the same thing. “When is he going to call back?” Nathan asked, trying to move the subject along.

Buck looked at his watch. “Another hour or so, we weren’t sure how long Ezra would be in recovery and we wanted to make sure we’d have time to set up for the trace.”

Chris looked at Ezra. “You up for this?”

Ezra met his eyes and nodded. “I may be a bit rusty,” he said with a wry grin, “but I do believe Mother’s training has all come back to me now.” He frowned. “Where is Mother?”

Chris grinned. “She’s babysitting Chloe’s kids. Said it was her responsibility to “take care of those poor, unfortunate children in their hour of need.”

Ezra stared at Chris’ imitation of Maude, or rather Margaret Tanner and then laughed, only to grab his stomach. “Don’t make me laugh, Chris,” he admonished with a one-sided grin. “Have you told her?”

“That you remember who you are?” Chris asked. Ezra nodded, leaning back into the pillows Nathan helpfully placed behind him. “No, we haven’t. Haven’t seen her or the kids since you ‘woke up.’ She checked them all into a hotel suite, said it would be safer if they weren’t in your house or their own, in case Long came looking.” He shrugged. “She was right and it kept them all out of our hair while we were waiting for Long to call.”

Ezra nodded. “I should call her.”

“Should probably wait until Long calls,” Buck said. “We’re having it forwarded here and Jefferson is going to call Chris’ cell as soon as it goes through.”

Ezra sighed and closed his eyes. “You’re probably right, Buck. I’m a little tired too. Need to save my strength for Long. Mother will require more energy than I appear to have at my disposal.”

“Just rest, Ezra,” Nathan said. “You lost a lot of blood. You got lucky, two of the shots just grazed you and the third one didn’t do any serious damage to internal organs, but it did require surgery to repair the wound. It’s going to take you some time to recover your strength.” Nathan smiled fondly as he saw that Ezra was fast asleep again.


Josiah followed Vin’s trail through the hospital. It wasn’t a trail he could see, but a quiet question to a nurse or patient easily indicated Vin’s direction. Once he realized that Vin was heading up, Josiah went to the nearest bank of elevators and pushed the button for the roof. Vin and Ezra had always had a penchant for going ‘up’ when they were troubled.

He opened the door to the roof slowly and made sure it wouldn’t lock behind him before stepping out onto the graveled rooftop. Josiah breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Vin, glad that the younger man had stopped his ascent at the roof and not decided to climb one of the several communication towers that topped the hospital. He eased himself down to sit on the ledge beside Vin and admired the view.

The hospital was located near the western edge of the city and from the roof they had a clear line of sight to the snow-capped mountains. Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Vin glanced at his friend then ducked his head, letting his hair create a curtain between them. After retiring from the ATF, Vin had allowed his normally shoulder length hair to grow even longer, but discovered that it got in the way if it went much past his shoulders. He pushed his hair back behind his ears and tilted his head to look at Josiah. The man never gave up.

Josiah gave him a small smile, but remained silent and went back to admiring the view.

Vin sighed.

“Ezra fell asleep after you left,” Josiah said, non-commitally.  “He’s worried. Didn’t come right out and say it, but I could tell.”

“He’s got every right to worry, ‘siah,” Vin said sharply. “His daughter and his girlfriend are in the hands of that madman, Long.”

“True,” Josiah agreed.

Vin turned his head to look Josiah in the eye. “True?! True? Is that all you’ve got to say about it?”

“I was just agreeing with you, Vin.”

“Well, don’t,” Vin said gripping the edge of the bricks below him. “And don’t try to make me feel better either.”

Josiah eyed him thoughtfully. “I didn’t come up here to make you feel better.”

“Stop!” Vin snapped, pushing to his feet and stalking away several steps before he turned back to glare at the older man. “Don’t try using that psycho-babble on me either.”

Josiah twisted so that he now sat with one leg on either side of the short brick wall along the edge of the roof. “Okay,” he replied calmly, watching Vin..

Vin stood still, his fists clenching and unclenching as he tried to ignore those knowing grey eyes. Finally, it was too much. “Damn it, Josiah! It’s my fault Long got away. My fault Ez got hurt!”

“Oh? You mean you’re responsible for getting him paroled early?” Josiah asked.

“What? No! Not this time, I mean before,” Vin said, tossing his hands up in frustration and self-reproach.

“Vin, we’ve been through this before. You were unconscious after the truck exploded and none of us saw Long get away in the confusion.”

Vin blew out an exasperated breath. “At the hospital, Josiah. When he tried to kill Ezra the first time! I saw him. I should have recognized him and stopped him.”

“Ah,” Josiah said as if understanding had just dawned on him. “So if you had seen Long at the hospital, he would have gone to jail…”

“Right!” Vin agreed vehemently.

“Just like he did, even though it was a few weeks before he was caught,” Josiah confirmed.

“Yeah,” Vin said, his anger deflating a bit.

“He would still have been paroled early.”

“I know,” Vin agreed, hanging his head.

“Vin, there was nothing you could have done to prevent any of this,” Josiah said, rising and crossing to stand by his friend. “I wish I knew where your guilt was coming from and how I could help wash it away.”

Vin sighed again. “I know, ‘siah, I just… It’s not fair, someone should take the blame for Ezra losing 10 years of his life.”

Josiah put his hand on Vin’s shoulder. “First of all, he didn’t ‘lose’ ten years, he’s lived a full, happy life here for the last ten years, with family… not with us, but Ezra was alive, Vin.” He paused and waited for Vin to look up at him, then continued. “Secondly, put the blame where it belongs, on Kenny Long. None of us is responsible for what he did. It’s time for you to stop beating yourself up over something you couldn’t prevent. Time to ‘forget what's gone, appreciate what still remains and look forward to what's coming next.’”

Vin frowned. “You quotin’ somebody famous, preacher?”

Josiah grinned. “Just something I read somewhere, but I think it applies to our situation, don’t you?”

Vin pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, ‘siah, I think it fits just right.” He smiled. “And for once, I actually understand what you mean.”

Josiah laughed and clapped Vin on the shoulder, keeping his hand there as they headed back inside. “Oh, and Vin,” Vin paused and looked over his shoulder, “we’re taking the elevator back down.” Vin opened his mouth, but Josiah just shook his head and said, “don’t make me come up with something to mind-boggling to explain why, brother.”

Vin chuckled and led the way to the elevators. “Might be kinda amusing to hear though.”

They were both laughing as the elevator doors opened.

>>>Thanks to Sue N for Josiah’s quote: A time to forget what's gone, appreciate what still remains and look forward to what's coming next (uncredited), and the push to show Josiah and Chris saying hello to Ezra.



Chapter 9

Ezra was asleep when Vin and Josiah returned to his room. Agent Jefferson showed up about half an hour later and was surprised to find his way into Ezra’s room blocked.

“He’s sleeping,” Josiah said, not bothering to stand or even straighten from his comfortable slouch in the chair, having just extended one arm to bar the way.

Jefferson frowned. These ex-ATF men had insisted on being involved at all levels of the investigation. Somehow they had gotten the FBI director’s approval, and while they’d been polite, they had shown a distinct lack of respect to some of his men. Granted some of his agents were insufferable, but they all knew their jobs and as agents deserved at least some courtesy.

“The kidnapper should be calling back any time now,” Jefferson reminded the older man. “I just want to confirm that the line trace is set correctly and to speak to Mr. Tanner about what is expected of him.”

Josiah grinned. “Oh, Mr. Tanner knows what to do.”

Jefferson sighed. “I realize Mr. Tanner has remembered who he was, but…”

Josiah straightened in his seat and stood slowly, coming eye to eye with the FBI man, but seeming bigger as his smile dropped. “Agent Jefferson, Ezra has forgotten more about hostage negotiation than you ever knew. He’ll be fine. If you’ll wait here, I will let Mr. Larabee know you’ve arrived.”

The agent took a step back to give Josiah room as he turned and quietly entered the room.

“Magnificent Seven,” Jefferson grumbled under his breath. “No wonder my boss groaned when he heard they were coming, probably worked with them back in the day.”

Josiah met Chris’ questioning eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Jefferson’s here. Wants to brief Ezra,” he added with a grin.

Soft chuckles circled the room.

“Better wake him up,” Chris said reluctantly. “He’ll want a few minutes to compose himself.”

 “I’ll do it,” Vin said, a small smile quirking one corner of his lips. “Got somethin’ to talk to him about anyway.”

Chris nodded and headed toward the door. “The rest of us will wait outside.”

“See if he’ll eat a little,” Nathan said before he slipped out the door.

Buck and Josiah followed him and JD paused for just a moment. “His cell number was forwarded to this system, when it rings, it’ll be Long,” he advised. “Should start the trace automatically.”

“Okay,” Vin acknowledged, shifting his gaze to meet Chris’ concerned stare.  “I’m all right, Chris.”

Larabee held his eyes for a second longer then nodded. “Probably don’t have more than ten, maybe fifteen minutes,” he said then left the room.

Vin took a deep breath and moved to Ezra’s bedside. “Least you don’t have that peashooter of yours,” he teased. He put his hand on Ezra’s arm and squeezed gently. “Time to wake up, sleepy head.”

For a minute or two, nothing seemed to change, then Ezra’s lips parted and he sighed.

“Come on Ezra,” Vin prompted. “Long’s gonna be calling any minute.”

Green eyes popped open and met blue. The haze of sleep cleared and those sharp eyes dug into Vin’s soul. Vin stared back, guilt, fear, anger and sorrow displayed for Ezra to see all too easily. Compassion filled Ezra’s eyes and he started to say something only to cough violently.

Vin grabbed the chance to turn away and picked up the glass of water from the table. Ezra pressed the button to raise the head of the bed. “Here,” Vin said holding the glass until he was sure Ezra had it securely.

Ezra finished drinking and handed the glass back to Vin. “I hate being in the hospital,” he complained.

“Beats the alternative,” Vin replied sharply. Ezra’s eyes widened at the unexpected anger in Vin’s voice. The Texan saw and sighed. “Aw, hell, Ezra, I’m sorry. I’m not angry with you. None of this is your fault,” he stopped, realizing that in some small way he had been angry with Ezra, too. Josiah would probably say that was a natural response to the situation. A small, wry grin played at the corner of Vin’s lips.

Ezra watched the emotions cross his friend’s face, reading them like he would a hand of cards. Vin seemed close to letting go of his guilt. Close, but… “I do hope you haven’t been beating yourself up over what happened to me for the last ten years,” Ezra said, slightly condescending. Vin’s eyes shot to his, surprised by the tone.

“It would have been a terrible waste of time, you see,” Ezra said, reeling in the line, “After all, I had put the entire ugly situation out of my mind completely.” He paused. “Out of practice, I see,” he said with a grin.

Vin blinked, ran Ezra’s words through his mind again and chuckled. “You son of a bitch. I’ve missed you.”

Ezra grinned. “And despite not knowing, I missed you as well, my friend.” He held out his hand and without realizing it Vin repeated Chris’ actions by grasping Ezra’s forearm and pulling him into a hug. Ezra clung to Vin’s arm and returned the embrace.

“I’m so sorry, Ez,” Vin whispered.

Ezra shook his head. “None of this was your fault either. You have nothing to apologize for,” he replied in kind, pausing for just a moment before adding, “Mr. Tanner.”

Vin chuckled and pulled out of the hug, both men wiping at their eyes. “Quite right, Mr. Tanner,” Vin said, grinning.

“Do you have any idea why Mother chose your name for me?” Ezra asked, a grin quirking his lips.

“Nope, she never said.” Vin sat down in the chair beside the bed and glanced at his watch. “Look, Ez, Long is supposed to be calling back any time now. You have any idea what you’re going to say?”

Ezra leaned his head back to rest against the pillow. “I haven’t had much time to think about it, Vin. It would be best if someone else answered the phone, tried to stall a bit, so I can get a feel for his frame of mind.”

Vin nodded. “Sounds like a plan to me,” he said with a small smile. “The Fibbie is outside, wants to brief you before the call.”

Ezra chuckled, but sobered quickly. “Is he the one that spoke to Long before?” Vin nodded. “Then perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. It would be even better if I could hear that conversation,” he added, eyebrows raised questioningly.

Vin stood. “I’ll check with JD. He probably brought a copy, the kid thinks of everything.”

Ezra watched him leave the room, wondering if he was up to this game of cat and mouse. He ran a hand through his hair, wincing when his wounds pulled against the movement. He didn’t remember being this drained after previous on-the-job injuries, but perhaps it was simply his memory playing tricks on him.

The door opened letting seven men in. A man Ezra didn’t know crossed to the bed and held out his hand.

“I’m Agent Jefferson, with the FBI. I’m in charge of this case,” he said with a slight note of irritation.

Ezra returned the handshake, avoiding the urge to irritate the man further with a snide remark. Instead he simply nodded.

Jefferson blinked and visibly relaxed when the expected sarcasm didn’t come. “Mr. Tanner, the other Mr. Tanner,” he said tipping his head to indicate Vin, “said you’d like to know about Long’s last phone call.”

“Yes, and if possible, I’d like to hear it,” Ezra replied, casting a glance past Jefferson to Chris who gave a brief nod.

JD was already at the computer. “I’ve got it when you’re ready Ezra.”

Jefferson turned, a frown on his face, but Ezra headed him off. “Could you tell me your impression of Mr. Long, Agent Jefferson?” Ezra ignored the grins on his friends’ faces and focused on the FBI agent.

“Well, I’m no profiler, but the man seemed to be unstable. One oar in the water, so to speak. He jumped from ransom demands to wanting to know how we brought you back from the dead,” Jefferson said. “He’s not going to be easy to deal with,” he added, concern lacing his voice.

Ezra nodded. “As I recall, he wasn’t very rational ten years ago. I doubt circumstances since have changed that.”

Just then the nurse entered carrying a tray of food. She frowned at the number of people in the room, but had been informed that it was a police situation. She smiled at Ezra as she set the meal on the rolling beside tray and settled it in front of the injured man.

“My name is Theresa,” she advised, raising the head of the bed just a bit more and adjusting the pillows to help Ezra sit more comfortably. His friends just grinned as they watched the nurse expertly maneuver things to her liking. “I’ll be on shift for the next few hours. If you need anything, push the call button. If you’re in pain, use this one, it’ll deliver small doses of pain medication. Don’t worry, you can’t overdose,” Theresa continued, not realizing that Ezra had way too much experience in hospitals. “Try to eat some of this, the sooner you are eating and up moving about, the sooner you can go home,” she added with a friendly smile.

Ezra just nodded in reply, eyeing the tray with suspicion as she lifted the covers. She left with a warning glance at the other men that they could only interpret as a caution to not tire out the patient. Ezra pushed the tray away, but Nathan stepped up and put it back.

“You need to eat something,” he said, “just a little. For Lauren?” Nathan asked, using the one thing that might encourage Ezra to eat.

Ezra sighed, but picked up a spoon to try the soup. “Would you permit me to listen to the tape while I eat?” he asked fondly with a tinge of sarcasm.

Nathan smiled broadly at his friend. “Sure,” he said, gently squeezing Ezra’s shoulder. “Go ahead, JD,” he said waving a hand at the computer.

The conversation between Jefferson and Long was disturbing and thus occupied Ezra’s mind enough that he ate more of the soup than he realized. Long’s ramblings indicated a man that would not listen to reason. Ezra wondered if he had truly forgotten or if it was the last ten years that had finally driven Long over the edge.

The recording stopped, Ezra set his spoon down and leaned back into the pillows.

“Do you know how you’re going to handle this?” Jefferson asked.

Ezra gave him a small, wry smile. “Haven’t a clue.”

Jefferson rolled his eyes. “You can’t just ‘wing it,’ Mr. Tanner. You have to have some idea of what you are going to say to his demands. Lives are at stake. Your da…”

Hard green eyes stopped the agent’s next words. “I know what is at stake, Agent Jefferson.  Believe me, I know. You’ll just have to trust that whatever I say, it will be in the best interest of Lauren and Chloe.”

The FBI agent closed his mouth and nodded. Tanner was right. There wasn’t any need to chastise the man, he had the most to lose if this thing went south.

“I think Ez should rest until the phone call,” Nathan interrupted, beginning to shoo the others out of the room.

A loud ringing stopped everyone in their tracks and all eyes went to the computer and phone system set up across the room.

“You answer it, Agent Jefferson,” Ezra instructed. Jefferson moved to pick up the phone, waiting only a moment to allow the others to put on their cordless receivers so they too could listen to the conversation. Ezra took the earpiece from Buck and put it in his ear.

“This is Agent Jefferson,” Jefferson said, keeping an eye on Ezra to see his responses.

“Is Peters there?” Long asked.

“As I told you, Mr. Tanner was seriously injured and required…”

“Yeah, yeah, Tanner, Peters, whatever he’s calling himself, is he there, or not?”

Jefferson shook his head, this guy was too much. “I’ll have to check with his doctor…”

“You better check fast ‘fore I get tired of playing your stupid game. I’ve got two hostages here, only need one.”

The agent watched Ezra, but saw no outward signs of alarm, just a calm façade staring back at him. “Look, sir,  I don’t even know what to call you. You seem to know Mr. Tanner, but you can’t expect him to remember you if I can’t even tell him your name.” Long had yet to identify himself to the FBI agent. It was only through the ex-ATF team that they knew his identity.

A coarse laugh came through the line. “Oh, he saw me, he knows who I am.” Long chuckled. “Tell him Kenny Long wants to talk about old times.”

Jefferson took a deep breath and raised questioning eyebrows at Ezra who simply nodded once. “All right, give me a minute to okay this with his doctor. He’s still recovering from surgery.”

“Yeah, fine, whatever, just hurry up. I ain’t got all day.”

Jefferson gave JD the signal to put the call on hold and walked over to the bed with the cordless phone. “You ready for this?”

Ezra rubbed his thumb along his lower lip thoughtfully, then nodded. “Yes,” he said simply,, catching the agent’s eyes, “Just don’t be surprised by anything I say. I’m going to follow Long’s lead and I’m not sure where he’s going to take us.”

“Okay,” Jefferson said with a nod. “Good luck.”

Ezra took the phone, held it for a moment then lifted it to his ear. “Mr. Long?” he asked, using the Chicago accent he’d adopted for Peters’ identity.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my old pal, Vince Peters,” Long said sarcastically. “Looks like the Feds have been treating you pretty well since you ratted on me, or are you an undercover narc like Larson?” he asked, referring to Vin’s undercover persona.

“I’m no cop,” Ezra said angrily.

“Then you musta been a snitch,” Long snapped back.

“Damn it, Kenny,” Ezra replied, putting resignation and anger into his voice, “you didn’t give me a choice. You tried to kill me in the hospital. I figured you’d just finish the job if I went to prison, so I cut a deal and got witness protection.  You shouldn’ta tried to kill me, Kenny,” he ended a note of entreaty in his tone.

A brief silence from the other end had the men in the room shifting nervously.

“Hell, Vince,” Long said sounding tired. “I thought I could trust ya. I was only trying to cover my tracks.”

“Sure, Kenny,” Ezra replied, understandingly, “I guess I can see that, but what about yesterday? Why’d ya shoot me? And why’d ya take my girls? I woulda got ya the money if you’d asked.”

Kenny gave a disbelieving snort. “You pretended not to know me, Vince. Whad’ya expect?”

“Well,” Ezra stammered, “I… I didn’t want ta blow my cover. Got it pretty good here, ya know? Look, Kenny, I can still get ya the money, but I gotta talk to my girls, okay?”

“Yeah, okay, but you gotta get rid of that Fed.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Ezra assured, “got ‘em eating out of my hand.” He threw a wink at Jefferson who just smirked and shook his head.

Shuffling noises came over the line and then a plaintive “Hello?”

Ezra sank back against the pillows almost shaking with relief. He had been trying to convince himself that Long wouldn’t hurt Lauren or Chloe, but inside he was a worried father. “Lauren, darlin’, everything’s all right. I’m gonna get you out of there soon, I promise.”

“Daddy?” Lauren asked, “who is this?”

Ezra paled as he realized what he’d done and he dropped back into his Steve Tanner persona. “It’s all right, pumpkin. It’s Dad. Are you okay?”

“Dad! I’m okay,” she paused, “so is Chloe. Are you okay? I was so scared, there was blood everywhere.  I thought you were d…”

“Lauren,” Ezra interrupted. “I’m fine. I need you to stay calm and not do anything to upset the men who have you. Can you do that?”

“Okay,” Lauren agreed meekly, not at all like her normal spit-fire self.

“We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can, pumpkin, I promise. Let me speak to Chloe for a moment.”


“I love you, Lauren, please, just…” Ezra’s voice cracked and he rubbed his eyes with his free hand.

“I love you, too,” Lauren whispered.

The phone changed hands again and Chloe spoke. “Steve? Are you okay?”

“Hi, Chloe,” Ezra said, pulling himself back together. “Are you two all right? They haven’t hurt you, have they?”

“No, we’re fine, Steve. Just worried, we didn’t know how badly you’d been hurt.”

“I’ll be fine, Chloe. I just need you to keep Lauren safe for me. I’m working on getting you home.”

Chloe took a shaky breath. “Okay, Steve. Um, Kenny wants to talk to you.”

A second later, “Vince? You ready to get down to business?” Long asked.

Ezra nodded as he spoke into the phone. “What do you want, Kenny?”



Chapter 10

Ezra ended the call and dropped the phone on the bed. He was barraged from all sides with questions and accusations, but simply closed his eyes and leaned back, not having to feign the weariness he felt.

It was the silence that finally brought him out of the light doze. Ezra looked around and saw only Chris sitting in the chair by the bed.

He cleared his throat, garnering Chris’ attention. “I don’t recall hearing gunshots,” he offered with a weak smile.

Chris smiled back. “Nah, haven’t used that threat in years. Never seemed to work anyway.” The blond stood and looked down at his friend. “Now I just threaten to run away to live in Boulder, but only when they drive me to the edge,” he added softly.

Ezra looked away then back, knowing that he was due a reprimand for his choices during the hostage negotiation. “Chris, I… I didn’t have a choice. Long wouldn’t have accepted the money from anyone but me. I can check out AMA for the exchange…”

Chris held up his hand. “I know, Ezra, and after we all calmed down, we agreed. Jefferson is checking with his supervisor to get permission for one of his female agents to play nurse.” He grinned at the surprise on Ezra’s face. “And Vin thought we could use one of the hospital transport vans, we’ve got it all worked out.” Chris chuckled at the familiar but rarely seen look of bemusement that filled Ezra’s expression.

“I’m so glad you gentlemen were able to come up with a plan without me. I was beginning to wonder how you’d gotten along for the last ten years,” he teased. Pain flashed in Chris’ eyes briefly causing Ezra to regret his words. “I’m sorry, Chris, I only meant…”

Chris gave him a small smile. “It’s okay Ezra, not your fault. I forgot what a wicked tongue you have, even in jest.” His lips quirked into a mischievous grin.

Ezra rolled his eyes, but returned a smile. “Well, I’m glad you have a plan, I gave you as much time as I could, but honestly, I was tempted to tell Long I’d be there within the hour,” he said, trying to keep up the friendly banter, but failing as his thoughts went to his daughter and lover.

A hand landed on his arm and squeezed. Ezra looked up and met Chris’ sympathetic gaze. “We’ll have them back real soon. I promise.”

Ezra nodded and took a deep breath. “Now, I suppose you should fill me in on this plan of yours.”


There was a brief knock on the door before Josiah poked his head in. “You up for a visitor?” he asked.

Ezra glanced at Vin who gave him a small smile. The patient took a slow, deep breath, exhaled and nodded. This should be interesting.

The plan Chris had explained seemed sound and the others had gone off to get things ready for the hostage exchange in a few hours, leaving Vin and Josiah to guard Ezra in case Long tried anything sneaky. To conserve manpower and allow Ezra to speak to his mother, Chris had sent Maude to the hospital with Ezra’s clothes. Ezra wasn’t sure exactly what Chris had told her. When asked, his friend had simply grinned, rather wickedly in Ezra’s estimation.

The door opened again. Josiah held it for Maude then pulled it closed behind her. She looked around the room, met Vin’s eyes with a brief nod, then looked at her son.

Their eyes met and a long minute passed before Maude whispered, “Ezra?”

He nodded, uncertain of her reaction.

She walked toward him and Ezra licked his lips. He could tell she was assessing him, looking for any information that would tell her what she needed to know. He quirked a sudden grin, glad to realize that his mother hadn’t changed. She may have been playing at being Margaret Tanner all these years, but underneath it all, she was, and always would be, Maude Standish.

Maude reached the edge of the bed as her son grinned. The look took her breath away. It was one she hadn’t seen on his face in a long time. A look that held a lifetime of knowledge about her and about their relationship. It wasn’t the sometimes confused, but loving smile of Steve Tanner who didn’t remember the ups and downs of their past. This was the cock-sure, adoring, but slightly exasperated grin of her son.

She wrapped her arms around Ezra and whispered, “I missed you so, my darlin’ boy.” Tears that had suddenly filled her eyes, slid down her cheeks when he returned the hug.

“I missed you too, Mother,” Ezra replied softly, his own eyes blurring with unshed tears.

The hug went on much longer than Vin had expected. He wiped his own eyes and stayed quiet, thinking they had forgotten about him.

Finally Maude pulled away, tugged on the hem of her blouse to straighten any wrinkles and snatched a tissue from the box on the bedside table to daub at her eyes. “So,” she said after they had all had time to compose themselves, “What’s this nonsense Mr. Larabee is telling me about you going to deliver the money to the kidnappers? Surely the doctor hasn’t released you yet.”

Vin bit down on a grin as Ezra shot him a look that was half exasperation, half a plea for help. Some things never changed.

“Please, have a seat, Mother,” Ezra said, wondering if he really was up to this visit. Vin moved to grab a chair and move it closer to the bed, but Maude surprised them both by taking a seat on the edge of the mattress. She took Ezra’s hand in hers and patted it, encouraging him to continue.

Ezra’s surprise was evident on his face, but he simply squeezed her hand. “What did Chris tell you?”

“Well, it seemed to be quite a tall tale,” she admitted, “but now that I see you for myself…” Maude paused. “You really remember who you are? Everything?” she asked hopefully.

Ezra smiled and nodded. “Mostly. There are a few blank spots, but I know I am Ezra Standish,” he frowned. “I’m not sure how Lauren’s going to take all of this.”

Maude patted his hand again. “Not to worry, dear, she may think she’s  a Tanner, but she’s a Standish through and through. She’ll be fine.”

Vin cleared his throat, amused by his own thoughts.

Ezra raised an eyebrow at him, then grinned. “Yes, well, Tanner’s are pretty tough, too, Mother.”

Maude had the grace to blush as she sent an apologetic look at Vin. “Yes, I suppose they are.”

Vin chuckled. “So I guess Chris told you about Long.”

She nodded and turned back to Ezra. “That miscreant is truly the kidnapper? How did he find you?”

Ezra sighed. “He wasn’t actually looking for me, he knew Chloe from their childhood. When he found out she was dating a rich lawyer, he thought he could make some extra money by blackmailing her and when that didn’t work he turned to kidnapping.”

Vin stepped up to the bed. “Only when he tried to take her, Long recognized Ezra as Vince Peters from ten years ago and…”

“And tried to kill you again,” Maude interrupted indignantly. “How can you take the chance, injured as you are?”

“He has Lauren, Mother, and Chloe,” Ezra said, fear clear in his voice. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same in my position.”

Maude took a breath and pressed her lips together before letting it out in a huff. She shook her head. “Of course I would, darlin’, it’s just… I don’t want to lose you again,” she admitted softly.

Ezra cupped her face with his hand. “Chris and the others have a good plan, Mother. And if you will help me, I’ll have every advantage.”

“What can I do?” Maude asked, her game face slipping into place.

Ezra grinned and started to explain the plan.



Chapter 11

Vin cleared his throat gaining mother and son’s attention. “Hey, Ez, I, uh, I realize we’re not in the ATF anymore, but I don’t think the FBI is going to like us sharing the plan with other civilians,” he finished with a weak smile and an apologetic shrug.

Ezra just smiled. “I believe it was ‘our’ plan in the first place, Vin,” Vin smirked at that. “And you have to admit that Mother is the Queen of Schemes.” This earned a snort of amusement from Vin and a gracious nod from Maude. “I am a tad out of practice and would welcome any suggestions she has to keep Long from perforating my person further.”

Vin held his hands up in defeat. “Okay, I agree. Go ahead.”

Ezra nodded and laid out the plan for his mother.

It took less than ten minutes to explain. They had little time to execute it, so they kept it simple and uncomplicated.

Success, however, would lie in the seemingly minute details that would lend believability to the con. Maude pursed her lips thoughtfully. Firstly, the clothes she had brought for Ezra just simply wouldn’t do. She met her son’s inquisitive gaze. “It would help if you didn’t look quite so healthy, Ezra.”

Ezra grinned, he did love the convoluted way his mother’s mind worked. “I don’t suppose you have a kit with you?”

Maude shook her head. “No, but I have one at the house. I’ll need to go back to get a different suit for you anyway.”

Ezra’s eyes widened as he suddenly remembered something. He chuckled and shook his head. “I hardly ever wear those anymore. Why did you allow Steve to become such a slob?”

Vin chuckled at Maude’s exasperated sigh. “I couldn’t very well insist you go back to acting like Ezra Standish, now could I? I found it most distressing when Steve started dressing down. It was truly depressing to think a child of mine would prefer comfort over fashion.”

Vin and Ezra broke into laughter, though Ezra’s injury quickly turned his to more controlled chuckles. Maude just shook her head disapprovingly, but the twinkle in her eyes belied her displeasure.

“If the two of you are finished?” she said, “I will go back to the house and collect what we need.” Maude paused. “Would you mind if I bring Chloe’s children for a visit? They need some reassurances from someone they trust.”

Ezra’s eyebrows rose then lowered in concern. “Dear God. Emily saw the whole thing, didn’t she?” Vin and Maude nodded. “Yes, please, Mother, I’ll talk to them.”

Maude nodded and leaned forward to place a kiss on her son’s cheek. “I’ll be back shortly.”

“Mother,” Ezra said, causing Maude to pause by the door, “did you happen to keep my derringer?”

Maude glanced at Vin, then looked back to Ezra. “I gave all of your weapons and some other belongings to Mr. Tanner for safe keeping.”

Ezra looked at Vin. “Sorry, Ez, I didn’t think to bring it. Didn’t think it would be needed.”

“You can use mine, son,” Maude said, opening her clutch. She extracted a small derringer, similar to the one Ezra had always used as a backup to his backup weapon. “It does pay to be prepared,” she added with a shark-like smile.

“Indeed it does,” Ezra said, taking the small gun and checking to see that it was loaded.

“I assume you both have a license to carry concealed,” Vin interrupted, a sly grin quirking his lips. “We are dealing with the FBI here.”

Ezra snorted. “I believe Ezra Standish’s permit is a little out of date, but Steve Tanner’s license is current.”

Maude smiled at Vin. “Darlin’, it’s the details that will catch you out. And it’s only good sense to stay within the law where it’s easy and… prudently advantageous.”

Vin shook his head. “I’ll give you back your guns and things, Ezra, but I’m keeping the dictionary.”

Maude and Ezra chuckled this time, knowing full well that Vin understood every word. Maude headed toward the door.

“I’ll be back in a flash, darlin’,” and with that she exited the room, leaving a vacuum where her presence had been.

Ezra shook his head. “She never changes.”

“Nope. Kinda frustrating and reassuring all at the same time, ain’t it?” Vin asked.

“You have no idea,” Ezra replied with a sigh. He looked at Vin. “I don’t suppose one of those ‘belongings’ Mother left with you happened to be Chaucer, would it?” he asked hopefully.

“Ah, Ez,” Vin said sadly, not wanting to get into something that would upset his friend. He didn’t have to say anything else though, Ezra could read Vin’s emotions in his voice and face.

“What happened?” he asked softly.

Vin sighed, running his hand through his hair before hitching one hip on the edge of the bed. “You know we always had a heck of a time keeping that horse in his stall at night.” Ezra nodded. They’d had to purchase a special bolt lock to keep the mischievous horse from opening the door and going on adventures by himself.

“Well, a couple years ago Chris had to hire some new hands to help out. One of them forgot to fasten the lock correctly. Chaucer got out and got into the feed.”

“Oh, God,” Ezra exclaimed quietly, fearing he knew what end his dear friend had met.

Vin nodded. “He colicked. The vet came out and did what he could, then me and the boys spent the day walking him, but…” he trailed off. “Thought it was the kindest thing to do, puttin’ him out of his misery. Couldn’t watch him die slow like that.”

“Of course not,” Ezra said, clearing his throat, his eyes bright with tears. “Thank you for taking care of him for me.”

Vin just nodded, swiping at his own eyes as they both regained their composure.

Finally, Ezra spoke. “Ten years is a long time. I will be extremely happy to get this ugly business completed and get on to our family reunion. We all have a lot to catch up on.”

“You got that right,” Vin said with a small smile. “Now, you want some help up before your ma gets back?” he asked tilting his head toward the bathroom. “Know you can’t take a shower, but…”

Ezra nodded. “Yes, well, nature is calling and I can freshen up a bit before Mother does her best to make me look as if I’ve risen from Death’s bed.”

Vin chuckled as he helped Ezra up out of the bed. Once he was standing and had his balance, Ezra managed to walk slowly on his own. Vin stayed close to the door in case he needed help.


(author note: no reason is given in the show for Brian Kmetko to be in a wheelchair… he has a ‘seizure disorder’ for which he takes an expensive medication and uses the wheelchair the few times we see him in the series, but I haven’t found any further information about his condition anywhere, and the research I’ve done on seizures makes me think that the only way the two conditions, seizures and whatever is keeping him in the wheelchair, might be related would be if he had some sort of trauma… maybe there was a car accident? Who knows. I don’t really think it matters for this story so, I’ll leave it up to you. Basically, he’s pretty well adjusted, a typical smart, sarcastic teen.)


Less than an hour after she left, Maude reentered the room with only a perfunctory knock. She held the door open and allowed Emily to push Brian’s wheelchair into the room.

Maude carried a garment bag and a pair of men’s shoes while Brian had a large silver case balanced on his lap. Vin moved to help them, taking the bag and reaching out to take the case.

“Leave that, Mr. Tanner,” Maude instructed. “We’ll be using it right away. You can take the suit out and hang it up so it doesn’t wrinkle.”

Vin nodded and did as he was instructed. The kids moved closer to the bed after Maude took the case and set it on the small table by the bed.

“Mr. Tanner?” Emily asked, a wealth of questions in her voice.

“Emily,” Ezra replied, “please, I’d prefer if you called me Steve…” he stopped when Vin cleared his throat, then continued, amused. “Or Ezra, if you like. If you address me as Mr. Tanner, you’re just as likely to get Vin’s attention here as mine.”

Emily frowned. “Ezra?” She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Ezra sighed. “It’s a long story, Em, and we will all sit down and talk about it after your mom and Lauren are back safe and sound. Vin,” he said, gesturing toward the Texan, “and some other old friends of mine are working on getting them home as we speak.” Ezra glanced at Maude. “Actually, I have some preparing to do myself.”

“Mr. T… um, Steve,” Emily started, “is my Mom okay? Are you okay?” With that, the dam broke. “I couldn’t believe it when we saw that guy shoot you, and I tried to stop Lauren, but she… and Summer grabbed my arm… and,” tears started to flow down Emily’s cheeks as she finally gave into the stress.

“Ah, darlin’,” Ezra said, opening his arms. Emily stepped up to the bed and let him pull her into a hug. “I’m so sorry.” He looked over Emily’s shoulder to her brother. “Are you all right, Brian?”

The younger teen nodded. “Mrs. Tanner has been taking care of us, making sure we eat and get to sleep and do our homework.” Brian paused. “We’re pretty worried about Mom though… and Lauren,” he added as an after thought.

Ezra nodded, rubbing Emily’s back comfortingly. “Me, too, kiddo, me, too. But in about three hours, they’re both going to be home.”

Emily straightened up, wiping her face. “Why did that man take them in the first place?” she asked, her voice catching a bit.

“Blackmail,” Maude provided. “Now, Ezra, I need you, can you sit over here for me?” she asked, indicating the other chair by the table.

“Yes, just give me a moment,” Ezra said, glad that Vin had shown him the robe to go over his hospital gown. He turned, putting one foot on the floor at a time, then levered himself up off the bed. Vin moved closer to help, but Ezra managed to make it to the chair without trouble.

Maude immediately started to work applying a liquid to Ezra’s face that looked like some type of makeup base.

“What are you doing?” Emily asked.

“Well, I’m go…” Ezra started only to be stopped by Maude’s finger on his lips.

“Hush, now. We don’t have much time. Let someone else do the talking so I can get this right,” she instructed, then continued, this time addressing the others. “Ezra is going to go to the hostage exchange and we are going to make him look like less of threat by using a little misdirection,” Maude said with a sly grin as she pulled out another bottle and began to apply it under Ezra’s eyes.

They sat watching as Maude worked and within a few minutes could see what she was doing. Once she finished, Vin pulled the curtain around the bed to give Ezra some privacy while he dressed. Maude explained the theatre makeup to the kids while he helped Ezra into his pants.


“Yes, Vin?”

“Is this Kevlar?” he asked, fingering the suit jacket.

Ezra grinned. “It is a special blend and yes, it does work like a bullet-proof vest, especially since the shirt is of the same material. Perhaps not as comfortable as silk, but I don’t intend to take another bullet from that man.”

Vin grinned and helped Ezra put his shirt on, his wounds making it painful to move as freely as needed. When Ezra was fully dressed, including socks and shoes and had a chance to run a comb through his hair and examine the final result, he nodded.

“Mother has not lost her touch,” he said, mostly to himself, but Vin chuckled and pulled back the curtain.

Just at that moment, the door opened again, this time letting JD in. The computer tech stopped dead in his tracks.

“God, Ezra, you look horrible! Are you okay?” he asked moving across to take Ezra’s arm and help him sit down. “Are you sure you’re up to this?”

Ezra grinned at him. “I’m fine, JD, really. Mother just worked some of her magic on me.”

JD frowned looking around to see similar grins on everyone’s faces.

“It’s true, JD,” Vin assured, “we just watched Maude make Ezra over. He’s doing pretty good, all things considered.” Emily and Brian nodded their support of Vin’s statement.

“Okay,” JD said skeptically. “Well, I’ve come to fit you with a mike, Ez,” he went on, holding up a plastic bag which he proceeded to open.

Vin leaned in to see. “Looks like a…”

JD grinned broadly and interrupted. “A cannula, I know, isn’t it great?” The door opened and Buck slipped into the crowded room as JD continued. “The wire goes through the tubing, but the mike itself is in the clip that you attach to your shirt to keep the tubing from getting tangled as you move.” He lifted the fragile-seeming device to show everyone what he meant.

Ezra eyed the contraption with admiration. “Ingenious as always, JD, I’m impressed that you put it together so quickly.”

“Yeah,” Buck said, “don’t be too impressed. We’ve used this particular party trick before.”

“Hey,” JD protested. Buck just grinned at him. “It’s still a neat party trick, Buck. And it was my idea.”

Buck patted JD on the back. “True, kid, and I’m sure Ez here will appreciate the fact that you want to put your bug up his nose.”

Vin and the kids cracked up laughing. JD rolled his eyes, but joined them. Ezra looked disgusted, but couldn’t keep a grin off his face either. Maude sat back in her chair shaking her head, but she too had a smile on her face.

Her boy was back where he belonged.



Chapter 12

Ezra fidgeted in the wheelchair, slipping his hand under the edge of the seat to make sure the gun was still secure.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Agent Angela Ross asked.

He lifted his hand back to his lap as he met her eyes and saw the concern there. Ross was a petite brunette with short cropped curls framing her face. A perky nose and big brown eyes made her too cute not to be memorable. However, Ezra knew what the right makeup could do and figured she was using that cuteness to make herself seem less of a threat.

 “It may have been a few years since I was in the field, Agent Ross, but my training began before I could talk,” Ezra said with a smile.

Ross blinked. “Oh, no sir, I don’t doubt you can handle the assignment in that way, I was just concerned, you look a little peaked.”

Ezra’s smile widened. “Mother will be happy to know she has not lost her touch.” He pointed to his face then lifted his hand toward her so she could examine it closer. “Stage makeup.”

The agent took his hand and looked closely at it, turning it one way and then the other. “Wow. From more than a few inches away, you can’t tell it’s makeup.” She released his hand. “Your mother did this?”

“I learned from the best,” Ezra said, adopting a slightly haughty tone.

Angela chuckled. “Well, so did I. Your cases are required reading in the academy, you know.”

Ezra went completely still for a moment, then forced himself to breath normally and thanked Maude for the layer of base that prevented the flush on his cheeks from showing through. He raised an eyebrow. “Really,” he stated, noncommittally.

“Yes,” Angela said copying his tone, her eyes twinkling. “Now, do you want to go over any part of the plan again?”

“No,” he said, amused. “I think we have things under control.”

From their car several blocks back, Buck whooped softly. “You go, Ezra.”

Ezra’s soft grunt of amusement was his only reply as Buck’s words echoed in the receiver which was located in the part of the cannula that hooked over Ezra’s ear.

“Buck,” JD admonished, “he has a girlfriend.”

“So? That Agent Ross is cute and obviously wants him,” Buck said, throwing a wink at Chris as he wound the kid up. “If Ezra doesn’t, I think I’ll ask her out.”

Josiah snorted. “I’ll be glad when Inez makes an honest man of you, Buck.”

The others chuckled at the flush that ran up Buck’s cheeks. JD hushed them suddenly. “We’re almost there.”

Although the rest of Team 7 weren’t allowed to participate in the bust, they had been given permission to monitor from several blocks away. Not that they intended to stay that far away.

Thanks to JD and Buck’s equipment, they could all hear what Ezra’s mike was picking up and each other, but only Chris had access to the FBI channel. From Ezra’s mike they heard the agent driving the ambulance van report that they were arriving and everyone got quiet.

Ezra double checked the fit of the cannula/mike and then motioned for Agent Ross to give him the satchel of money. She placed it on his lap and did a final sound check on her own mike.

The van pulled to a stop in the parking lot at the Rock. For some reason Long had found it amusing to take them back to the beginning of this little fiasco. Ezra shook his head. Fortunately, being Steve Tanner and having the FBI on his side, for once, he was able to get everyone to clear out for the evening. Still, the Rock would appear to be busy with all the unmarked vehicles and ‘patrons’ moving around inside and out. Of course, they would all be officers of the law, but with a little judicious planning and borrowing, they would all appear to be connected to the gym.

Even now, he could see men and women, some seeming no older than their teens, moving about in warm up suits and Rock jackets, while others were wearing clothing that pegged them as the parents of the athletes. Ezra smiled as he saw Chris climb the steps to the front door wearing Beloff’s ‘team coach’ jacket. He knew the rest of the team would be dispersed about the area as well, despite Jefferson’s request that they ‘stay out of the way.’

Team 7’s plan and the FBI’s plan had never been one hundred percent the same. For one, Ezra would much rather have his friends watching his back than unknown FBI agents, even ones as pleasant as Agent Ross. He had also not been allowed a weapon, thus the hide-away gun below his chair. And as an extra precaution, Nathan had shown him how to pop the safety valve on the small oxygen tank attached to the side of the chair. No one had to know that it wasn’t oxygen in the tank that was not attached to Ezra’s fake cannula, but a pressurized canister of mace that Ezra could deliver with deadly precision thanks to the nozzle hidden cleverly under the arm of the wheelchair.

Ezra gave Agent Ross a fierce grin as she moved to open the side door. He had his own personal ‘James Bond’ style wheelchair.  All he needed were rocket boosters. He chuckled lightly, ducking his head to hide his face from view of anyone outside.

Ross raised an eyebrow. “Anything I need to know?” she asked as she pushed the button to lower the wheelchair lift to the ground. Ezra shook his head and slumped in the chair to appear weakened. “Here we go,” Ross said as she pushed his chair onto the paved lot.

He lifted his head, looking around for signs of Long, Lauren or Chloe, even though he knew it was unlikely he would see his daughter or Chloe until after Long saw the money. Ezra heard the triple tap in his earpiece that meant Vin was in place and had good coverage of the area. He scratched his ear in acknowledgement, old signals recalled with ease now.

The thought that Ezra Standish and Steve Tanner wouldn’t like each other was harshly pushed to the back of his mind as he saw Long striding across the lot without a care in the world.

He stopped a few feet away from Ezra and frowned. “You look terrible, Vince… or is it Steve?”

Ezra shrugged. “I explained all that on the phone, Kenny.”

“I thought I told you to come alone?”

Ezra aka Vince Peters aka Steve Tanner rolled his eyes. “And I told you, I can’t drive,” he waved weakly at the chair he was in, “can’t even walk much yet.”

Long looked at him for a long moment then nodded. “Yeah, okay, but she can wait over by the ambulance until we’re done,” he said motioning to the nurse with a lift of his chin.

“Sir?” Ross asked, playing the helpful nurse to the hilt.

“It’s all right, Nurse,” Ezra replied, patting her hand, “I’ll call you when I need you,” he coughed softly holding his chest as if in pain.

“Are you sure?” Ross asked.

“You heard him,” Long said gruffly. “When we need you, you’ll know,” he added with a slight sneer.

Ezra nodded and Agent Ross walked back over to the ambulance, tossing concerned glances back at her patient.

“That the money?” Long asked, nodding toward the bag on Ezra’s lap.

“Yeah,” Ezra replied. “Some of it,” he added as Long took the bag and opened it.

Kenny’s head jerked up. “What do you mean some of it?”

Ezra gave a half smile. “Come on, Kenny, you should know how this works. First off, all the cash wouldn’t fit in one bag.” His smile widened as Kenny grudgingly nodded acknowledgement of that fact. “Secondly, you’ll get the rest when I see my girls are okay. That’s how it’s done, right?”

Long huffed, but nodded and looked around. He saw what was expected, gymnasts and their families, coming and going. Some of them even got into cars and drove off while others pulled into the lot, parked and entered the building. Little did he know that they were the same people time and again.

“Let’s get this over with,” Long said, turning to look behind him. He raised his hand and waved a ‘come here’ motion to someone Ezra couldn’t see.

A side door on a dingy, brown van parked in clear view close to the parking lot exit slid open. Two men got out and then helped Lauren and Chloe down out of the van. Their hands were tied in front of them, they were gagged, and they both searched the area frantically.

When their eyes met his, Ezra simply waved his hand, ignoring his heart that was screaming for him to go to them. All he had to do was shoot Long and the other two would probably give up. He looked back at Kenny, green eyes hard and cold.

“You send them over here and I’ll have my nurse bring you the other bags,” Ezra instructed.

Nuh uh,” Kenny said. “I want to see the money first.”

“You’re not getting near the money until Lauren and Chloe are with me,” Ezra stated firmly.

Kenny put a hand to his heart. “You don’t trust me?” he feigned hurt.

“Need I remind you, you shot me?” Ezra said. “Fine, send one of your goons over to the ambulance. He can verify the money is there, then we can do an even exchange. You send the girls and he can bring the money to you. Fair?”

Long shrugged. “Okay.” He turned and shouted, “Hey, Sam, come here.”

The man holding Chloe’s arm said something to the other guy who took hold of Chloe as Sam jogged toward them.

“Go make sure all the money is there,” Long instructed, pointing to the ambulance. “Let me know and we’ll make the exchange.”

Sam nodded and went to the ambulance. The nurse watched him then looked to Ezra for confirmation. He nodded and the woman went around to the back of the vehicle and opened the doors. Sam followed. For a few moments they were both blocked from view by the back door.

“Well?” Kenny shouted, getting antsy.

Sam came out from behind the door with a large duffle over his shoulder and another good size bag in his hand. “It’s good,” he said with a nod and a quick look at the nurse who was still not visible.

“Come on then,” Long instructed, turning to motion for his other man, Mike, to let the girls go.

Ezra watched as Chloe and Lauren started across the lot. “Just so we’re clear, Kenny. I’m not giving you any more money. If I ever see you again…”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Vince. I’m leaving the country for good this time,” he said with a wicked grin.

Ezra smiled back, seeing Mike being apprehended by a couple of feds and Chris and Buck intercepting Chloe and Lauren.

Long frowned, not liking the look on his face. “What…”

“Kenny Long,” Ezra said, lowering his feet to the ground and pushing himself to his feet, gun in hand and pointed at Long’s chest. “I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest for the kidnapping of Lauren Tanner and Chloe Kmetko as well as the attempted murder of myself. I suggest you come along peacefully.”

Long’s jaw dropped open and he moved to grab his gun, but Ezra was ready for him. “I wouldn’t.  This weapon may not seem large enough to do damage, but at this range, it’s just as deadly as any other.”

Kenny held his hands out and scowled as people swarmed in, took his gun and cuffed him.

“Make sure he hears his rights,” Ezra said watching for anything that might mess up the arrest. “I don’t want this bastard seeing daylight until he needs a wheelchair.”

The agents nodded and grinned as they took Long away.

Ezra turned to see Agent Ross putting the cuffs on Sam who had been given no choice in the matter when he went to ‘confirm’ the money.  Agent Jefferson walked up to Ezra and shook his hand.

“Not exactly what we planned, Mr. Standish,” he said with a wry smile.

“Yes, well, I always found it best to have several ‘plans,’ Agent Jefferson. Thank you for your assistance.”

Jefferson nodded. “You’re welcome. We’ll have to debrief, but I suspect you are eager to reunite with your family,” he said, looking to his left.

Ezra followed his gaze and saw Lauren running toward him, Chloe followed at a slightly slower pace with Chris and Buck. Ezra held out a hand to prevent his daughter from being too exuberant in her greeting.

Lauren slowed and stopped in front of him. “Daddy?”

“I’m all right, pumpkin,” Ezra replied, stepping forward to wrap his daughter in a hug. “Are you okay, darlin’?”

“Oh my god, Dad, I was so scared. I thought you were dead. There was so much blood and….”

Ezra looked up at Chloe as Lauren started to ramble out her fears. She clung tightly to his jacket, speaking into his chest as he simply held her close.

Chloe smiled weakly at him. “I’m so sorry, Steve…” she started.

“It’s not your fault, Chloe,” Ezra interrupted. “He was an old ghost from my past.”

“I don’t understand,” Chloe said with a frown.

“Hey, Ez,” Buck said, “Think you need to sit down, pard. You’re starting to look a little pale, even under all that stage makeup.”

Ezra looked at Buck, surprised by his comment, but suddenly feeling a bit light headed.

“Sit down, Ezra,” Chris commanded, holding the wheelchair he’d retrieved steady.

Lauren let go of her father, a frown on her face. “What did he call you?”

Ezra sat down rather hard. “It’s a long story, Lauren. Unfortunately, it’ll have to wait… I’m afraid Buck is correct, I’m feeling rather…”



“Easy there, Ezra.”

He heard all of their worried voices, but couldn’t seem to focus, everything seemed very far away.

“That’s it,” Chris’ voice said, “We’re going back to the hospital.”

“No,” Ezra said, shaking his head to try and clear it. “I’d rather go home. I’m sure Nathan can…”

Nathan’ll skin you alive if you don’t check back in,” Buck chuckled.

Someone grabbed his hand. Ezra looked up into Lauren’s scared, brown eyes. “I’m okay, sweetheart, just tired. I don’t think my doctor will appreciate my little field trip,” he said with a slight grin.

“Come on,” Chris said, “You two can ride back in the ambulance with Ez… Steve. We’ll meet you at the hospital.”

Lauren bit her lower lip as she stared at Chris, but finally nodded.

Chloe looked from Steve and Lauren to Chris and Buck. “Do you know where my kids are? I should get back to them,” she said.

“Well, darlin’,” Buck drawled with a smile. “They’re probably at Ezra’s… er Steve’s house, but I think the doctors should check you out first, then I’ll be glad to give you a lift.”

Ezra turned his head as Chris pushed his chair onto the lift platform. “Lay off, Buck,” he growled.

Buck chuckled and gave Chloe a gentle push toward the ambulance. “Go on. I’ll call them and let everyone know you’re all right.”

Chloe nodded, but looked just as befuddled as Lauren as she climbed into the back of the ambulance.

Chris closed the door and told Ross and the other agent that they’d follow them to the hospital, then stepped back to where Buck was waiting.

“I don’t envy him explaining all this,” Buck said with a grin.

Chris chuckled. “Well, don’t get too much amusement out of it. I have a feeling we’re going to get to help… a lot,” he added, slapping Buck on the arm before he headed for his truck.



Chapter 13

The sun had set by the time they got back to the hospital. Ezra’s doctor had left for the day and all after-hours patients were seen on an emergency basis, so they ended up waiting in the ER until a doctor was available. True to his word, Agent Jefferson and his people had disappeared after a brief word from Agent Ross to let Ezra know they would be in contact in a few days to get statements.

Maude arrived soon after with Emily and Brian. Chloe rushed over to greet them, hugging both of her kids and bestowing multiple kisses on them before gently gripping Maude’s arm and thanking Mrs. Tanner for watching them. Maude smiled and squeezed Chloe’s hand speaking softly, her words lost to the rest of them in the noises of the busy emergency room. She laid a brief hand on Brian’s shoulder and gave Emily a peck on the cheek before moving swiftly across to Lauren and Ezra.

Ezra, Chris, and the others all stood as she approached, as did Lauren who rose swiftly from her chair and practically threw herself into her grandmother’s arms. Ezra saw the smiles on his friends’ faces and the nudge Buck gave to JD. He could only assume they were sharing some common preconception about his daughter.

“Lauren, darlin’,” Maude said, her voice full of relief as she took the girl into her arms. “Are you all right, dear?”

Lauren nodded, hugging her grandmother tight.

“Steve?” she asked.

Ezra nodded and gave her a small smile. “I’m fine, Mother. Just waiting for the doctors to give us all a once over so we can head home.”

Maude looked him over, still holding on to Lauren, and shook her head. “Sit down, son, before you fall down and embarrass us all,” she chided, a smile twitching at her lips.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra replied all too readily. Vin grasped his elbow and helped him ease back down into the chair. Ezra nodded his thanks and patted the seat beside him.

Maude nodded and steered Lauren back to sit beside her father taking the chair on Lauren’s other side as Chris and the other men shuffled to allow Maude to take the seat Chris had occupied.

Vin didn’t miss the suspicious looks Lauren gave all of them as she sat back down, tucking her arm in her father’s and leaning into him. He could only imagine what she thought of all these men she didn’t know seeming so familiar with her family, Lauren included. She didn’t know that her grandmother had furnished them with photos and anecdotes over the last ten years, enough that Vin and the others felt they knew their niece even though they hadn’t seen her in a decade.

Lauren’s suspicion had turned to a frown of confusion when she looked at Chris and it only deepened when her eyes moved to Vin. He gave her a fond smile and averted his eyes, not wanting the teen to think he was watching her.

A nurse with a clip board entered the waiting area. “Steve Tanner?” she called.

Ezra stood slowly, but when he tried to follow the nurse, he found himself hampered by Lauren who would not let go of his arm. “Lauren, I’ll be right back, just wait here.”

“Don’t leave me alone, Daddy,” she pleaded, not releasing her hold.

“Pumpkin, you won’t be alone, your grandmother will be right here and my friends…”

Lauren cut him off. “I don’t know them. I want to stay with you. Please, Daddy,” she begged, burying her face in his chest, her arms wrapping tight around his middle. “Please?”

Ezra hugged her to him and felt the tremors flowing through his daughter. He looked at the nurse. “She’s been through a traumatic experience the last few days. The doctor is supposed to be examining her as well, would it be all right…” he trailed off questioningly.

The nurse studied them for a moment then nodded. “Come this way, please,” she said, heading toward one of the small exam cubicles.

“Come on, Lauren,” Ezra said, guiding her away.

“She’s a Standish all right,” Buck said with a small grin on his lips.

Lauren whipped around glaring at him. “I’m a Tanner!” she declared haughtily.

Vin grinned. “You sure are, kiddo,” he said with a wink at Ezra.

Ezra blew out an amused breath and shook his head at Lauren’s questioning look. “Later, darlin’, the nurse is waiting.”


The doctors gave Ezra, Lauren and Chloe the all clear to go home, though Ezra was instructed to rest and not overdo it the next few days. He also received a prescription for pain medication and antibiotics. Chloe decided to take her kids home and agreed to bring them all over to Steve’s house in the morning so he could explain things.

Once they got back to the Tanner home, a light meal was made and sleeping arrangements were figured out. Lauren was atypically quiet as the six men her father called his friends moved around her house with disconcerting familiarity.

Every time one of them called her father Ezra, she would give them a glare that rivaled Chris’. And though it didn’t happen quite as often, the men also called her grandmother ‘Maude’ instead of Margaret. Lauren’s exhaustion and confusion, combined with the odd feeling that she had met Chris and Vin before all kept her from making any further comments.


Lauren crawled into bed and laid her head on her dad’s shoulder. They were sharing his room so that her grandmother could take Lauren’s bed and the ‘others’ as she was thinking of them could use the guest bedrooms and the couch.


“Yes, Lauren?” Ezra replied wearily. The long day and his recent injuries had taken their toll and he could hardly keep his eyes open.

“Who are those guys? Why are they still here? And why are they calling you ‘Ezra’ and grandmother ‘Maude’?” Lauren asked.

“It’s a long story, darlin’.”

“And why are you talking like that?” she asked, tilting her head to look at his face.

Ezra opened his eyes briefly. “Lauren, it’s been a long, long day. We’re both tired and I promise I’ll tell you everything in the morning, okay?” She sighed. “I love you, Lo.”

“Love you, too, Daddy,” she said closing her eyes.

Father and daughter were soon sound asleep.


Ezra woke and for a moment was unsure of where he was. He looked around his bedroom; Steve Tanner’s bedroom and frowned. It was very strange to remember being two different people, nothing like being undercover, because in those instances he’d always been Ezra Standish no matter who he was pretending to be. But for the past ten years he’d actually been Steve Tanner and now… now he had to figure out how to integrate Ezra and Steve. He sighed.

Lauren was already up he noted idly, wondering at the lack of noise coming from the rest of the house. He tried to sit up and groaned when the wound across his stomach protested. Ezra rolled onto his side and lowered his feet to the floor then pushed himself upright. He certainly hadn’t missed being shot. He grinned to himself and shook his head as he looked at the clock, surprised no one had come in to wake him as it was almost nine-thirty.

After dressing in ‘Tanner’ casual, which consisted of a button-down shirt and a pair of slacks, Ezra went downstairs to find his friends lounging about the living room with their breakfast plates or bowls in hand. He grinned.

“Gentlemen, the dining room or the kitchen would be the appropriate locale for breaking your fast, not the living room.”

Six sets of eyes and matching grins greeted him along with variations on “Hey, Ez,” and “Good morning, Ezra.”

Nathan stood and started to move toward him, but Ezra waved a hand at him. “How are you feeling this morning, Ezra?” Nathan asked, retaking his seat a bit reluctantly.

“Surprisingly well, considering I’ve slept for over twelve hours and did not find myself rudely awoken,” he said with a grin that just didn’t seem to want to go away. It felt a bit like he’d opened his Christmas presents and gotten everything he’d ever wished for at one time.

The others chuckled and seemed to be having a similar problem dislodging their smiles.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen my daughter, or Mother,” he said looking around.

“Lauren’s in the kitchen,” Buck said, pointing his thumb toward the room.

“Maude came down when Lauren got up, about five or so,” Vin said, a frown creasing his brow. “But she went back upstairs after a while saying it was too early for civilized folk.”

Ezra frowned as he looked toward the kitchen. “I didn’t even hear her get up. Is she okay?” he asked the room at large.

“I suspect,” Josiah said, “that she has a lot of questions and may even be remembering a few things herself.” He nodded as the question in Ezra’s eyes turned to concern.

“She didn’t remember the… incident either,” he said with sudden certainty.

Chris shook his head. “No, she was pretty traumatized by it. The psychiatrist your mother hired recommended we not push her. Said she’d remember when and if she was ready.” He wiped his hands on a napkin and tossed it on an empty plate sitting on the coffee table. “I think she may have recognized me and Vin… or at least thought she’d seen us somewhere before.”

Ezra closed his eyes as he rubbed his forehead. A hand on his shoulder caused him to open them. JD stood beside him and Ezra had to smile at the understanding in his eyes. “Just how many little Dunne’s have you and Casey managed to bring into this world, JD?” he asked.

JD smiled. “Just the two, a girl and a boy, and am I ever dreading their teen years,” he replied with a sly glance at Nathan.

“Tell me about it,” Nathan agreed. “I have a few years to go with my boys, but …” he gave a mock shiver which caused everyone to laugh.

“Come on, boys,” Buck said gathering up his plate. “We should clean up. Ezra’s guests’ll be here in a little while.”

Ezra sighed. Chris clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a gentle push as they all headed for the kitchen. “Don’t worry about it, Ezra. There was nothing you could do about any of it. Just tell them what happened and answer their questions. We’re here for you and so is Maude.”

Startled green eyes met his steady gaze and Ezra chuckled. “You’re right, Chris. It just feels like I’ve been dishonest with them. I know I haven’t been, at least not on purpose, but…” he shrugged.

Chris nodded in understanding. “I can’t even begin to know how you’re feeling. I never could figure out what you were thinking anyway,” he teased earning another chuckle. “We’ve missed you and you better believe we’re not letting you get away from us again,” Chris said more seriously.

One corner of Ezra’s mouth quirked into a grin. “Trust me, Chris, I don’t intend to let you gentlemen off the hook that easily. According to my calculations, you all owe me several years’ worth of babysitting, at the very least,” he said moving into the kitchen leaving Chris fighting back a laugh.

Ezra stopped just inside the kitchen. Lauren was studiously ignoring the men around her, apparently reading one of her school books. Buck tossed him a grin then turned back to take another dish from JD to dry. Chris squeezed his shoulder supportively.

“I do hope you saved me something to eat,” Ezra teased as he went over to Lauren. He laid his hands on her shoulders and planted a kiss on the top of his daughter’s head. “Did you sleep well?”

Lauren shrugged not lifting her eyes from the book.

Ezra sat down beside Lauren, feeling a little lost. He wasn’t sure how to interact with his daughter. He’d come to the conclusion that he couldn’t be Steve Tanner anymore. He had to be true to himself and Steve was just another persona he’d been playing, albeit unknowingly.

Now that he remembered who he was, being Steve felt one dimensional, as if he were only allowing the world to see some of who he was. He really didn’t know how to make Lauren understand.

Some of his confusion must have been showing on his face because suddenly the friendly banter became a bit more rambunctious and Ezra was drawn into it with a demand for his breakfast order from Josiah. JD chimed in that it was probably too early for Ezra who usually wasn’t up until noon anyway and that got a wry smile from Ezra but only more frowns from Lauren.

After a little more wheedling/badgering from Nathan, Ezra finally agreed to some toast and coffee to go with his antibiotics. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure his stomach would handle anything, he was too nervous about explaining how they were really Standishes, not Tanners. He took a bite of the lightly buttered toast Nathan set in front of him. He couldn’t really expect Lauren to want to be a Standish… and it would be a pain to change his name back to Ezra. Too much paperwork. He sighed. It would be easier to remain Steve Tanner to the world at large and just remake Steve in Ezra’s image. It was getting very awkward thinking of himself in the third person.

Ezra grinned to himself earning several raised eyebrows from his friends and another confused frown from Lauren. He was happy to hear the doorbell which probably meant Chloe had arrived.  Swallowing his last bite, he took a swig of coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin, then stood. “I believe it is time to get this show on the road,” Ezra said with a small grin before slipping the book out of Lauren’s hand and tugging her gently to her feet. “Let’s go into the living room,” he said, including everyone in his statement.

They all trailed after him to find that Margaret Tanner had let the Kmetco’s in already and was asking if they’d like something to eat or drink.

Chloe shook her head. “Thank you Mrs. Tanner, we’ve already eaten,” she said, her gaze shifting to Ezra as he crossed the room. “Steve,” she said hesitantly.

Ezra grasped her shoulders while he searched her face. “Are you all right, Chloe?” She nodded and Ezra pulled her into a hug. “I am so sorry,” he whispered in her ear.

Chloe pushed him away slightly. “Sorry for what?” she asked remembering his apology from the night before.

Ezra ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Please, have a seat,” he said motioning toward a chair. He looked at Emily and Bryan. “Come on, you too. I need to explain this to all of you.” He waited until Emily and Chloe had taken a seat and Bryan had maneuvered his wheelchair smoothly down the shallow steps into the sunken living room.

“I suppose introductions should be made first,” Ezra said, a bit of his former good humor showing through as he grinned at the six men now seated around the room. “Chloe Kmetko, her daughter Emily and son Bryan,” he said with a wave of his hand toward the three before turning to indicate his own daughter. “Lauren Tanner. You all know my mother,” Ezra said with a slightly wider grin and a wicked glance at Maude. She simply rolled her eyes.

“And from left to right,” Ezra continued pointing toward Nathan who was first on the left. “These gentlemen are my friends, Nathan Jackson, JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington.”

“Friends from where?” Lauren asked from where she sat beside her grandmother, arms and legs crossed tightly.

Ezra sighed. “From before I became Steve Tanner,” he said softly. Seeing the confused looks from the Kmetko clan and the anger in his daughter’s eyes, Ezra tossed a pleading look at Chris.

“Go on, Ezra,” Chris said in reply, a small smile playing on his lips.

“You’re not helping, Chris,” Ezra sighed with exasperation. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to jump in and supply any information I do not recall?” he asked sarcastically.

Chris’s small smile turned to a full-fledged grin at the sight of the Ezra he knew and… well, yeah, he could admit it… loved.

Ezra sighed again.

“Really, dear,” Maude chided, “Have you forgotten everything I ever taught you?”

He looked at her, eyebrows raised in surprise, but had to smile at the teasing glint in his mother’s eyes. “Very well, I suppose there are other introductions to attend to,” Ezra continued, feeling a bit less anxious with all the ‘support’ he was getting from friends and family. He almost grinned at the thought. “This lovely lady is my mother, though some of you know her as Margaret Tanner and the rest as Maude Standish. And as for myself, Steve Tanner, I was originally born Ezra Standish.”

Chloe opened her mouth, then closed it with a frown.

Ezra saw and just nodded. “I was an agent with the ATF in Denver. These men,” he waved a hand at the six, “were my teammates and my friends. A little over ten years ago we were involved in a bust to take down an arms dealer named Kenny Long.”

Chloe gasped. Ezra nodded and continued, turning to look at Lauren. “Long had a mistress with him, a young woman and her six year old daughter. The woman’s name was Leslie, her daughter was Lauren. Imagine my surprise at seeing a woman I had been in love with over six years earlier keeping company with the man we were trying to arrest.” He paused, not sure how to explain since he still didn’t recall much of what had happened before the explosion or immediately after.

Vin stood up and put his hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “Ez and I were undercover working for Long. My job was to protect Leslie and Laurie. Ezra hadn’t seen either of ‘em though he knew about them. We were both shocked when Leslie saw Ez for the first time and introduced Laurie as his daughter. Unfortunately, that was about as far as we got at the time, ‘cause everything went to hel… heck,” Vin corrected quickly, sending a meaningful look to Chris as he gave Ezra a gentle shove toward the empty spot beside Lauren, perching himself on the arm of the overstuffed sofa beside Ezra.

Chris waited until Ezra sat down, then continued the narration. “Long, or one of his men, shot a small missile launcher at the semi they had been hauling. When it blew, Vin and Ezra were trying to get Leslie and Lauren to safety. Fortunately, mother and daughter weren’t badly hurt, some cuts and bruises, but both Vin and Ez were injured pretty badly by the flying debris. For a while we weren’t sure Ezra would live.” He looked at Ezra, smiling to see Lauren grasp her father’s hand possessively at his last words. “As you can see, he did make it, but had suffered a very bad hit to the head along with some other injuries. When he finally recovered,” Chris said, skipping quite a lot of the detail, “Ezra didn’t know who he was. Kenny Long had gotten away and was a threat to Ezra, Leslie and Lauren. It was decided that Ezra and his family, including Maude should be relocated under new names.”

“Like witness protection?” Emily asked, ducking her head briefly at her own temerity.

Chris smiled when she met his eyes again. “Yes, exactly. Even though none of them were really a threat to Long, Ezra because he didn’t remember, Lauren because she was too young and Leslie because of…” he faltered, glancing at Lauren and seeing the understanding in her eyes that her mother’s addiction problem was the reason Leslie was not considered a threat. “Well,” Chris continued, “she had some other health issues, in any case, Long was… is mentally unstable and seemed to be intent on revenge. A new identity for the Standish family seemed to be necessary at the time.” Chris sent a questioning look at Ezra who nodded and took up the story again.

“I truly did not remember being anyone other than Steve Tanner until I woke up in the hospital the other day,” he explained. “My memory of those first years is… foggy. Mostly I remember what Mother told me about my manufactured past as Steve Tanner.” He looked at Maude with an oddly wistful smile. “I realize you were only doing what you thought was best,” Ezra told her. “I can’t even say it would have done any good to tell me who I really was at the time. And I’m certain there was no way I could have understood I had to ‘be’ Steve Tanner and also realize I was actually Ezra Standish. From what little I recall and have gleaned from our brief conversations,” he said, looking at his friends, “the head injury was much more severe than Chris implied. No one expected me to recover my memory,” he finished candidly.

Chloe squirmed in her seat causing Ezra to smile fondly. He really did care for the vivacious brunette. “It’s okay to ask, Chloe,” he encouraged.

She smiled tightly, but nodded. “So, who are you then? Steve, or Ezra? And… does the sexy accent come with the package?” she added mischievously causing Ezra to blush slightly and the other men to laugh.

“Only if you like it,” Ezra drawled suggestively earning a punch to his shoulder from Lauren, fortunately, not the arm he’d been shot in.

“Daddy,” Lauren said reprovingly. Ezra chuckled.

“Better get used to it, Lo,” Buck said, “your dad has quite a wicked sense of humor.”

She flashed a glare at the tall, mustached man and sat back, crossing her arms over her chest. Buck just chuckled. She was a Standish all right.

“So?” Chloe prompted, wanting answers.

Ezra sighed. “Both, I suppose… however, Steve is more like,” he paused trying to put his thoughts in order, “it’s like Steve is just a part of who I am.” He started to stand, only to be gently pushed back down by Vin.

“You don’t need to pace, pard. The doctor said to take it easy, remember?” he asked with a fond smile.

Ezra sighed but nodded and tried to make himself more comfortable, but he needed to move. Something hard landed in his lap and Ezra grabbed it automatically as he looked across to Josiah. The profiler lifted his chin briefly, indicating the object he’d tossed. Almost without realizing it, Ezra had opened the box and when he looked down he saw a deck of cards. A grin crossed his lips as he began to manipulate the cards, a bit roughly at first, but with more confidence as his muscle memory returned. Ezra met Josiah’s eyes. “Thank you.”

Josiah nodded. “Want to continue what you were saying now?” he teased.

“Yes, where was I?” he asked rhetorically as he casually mixed the cards with an overhand shuffle.1 “Who am I? I am Ezra Standish. I remember everything about being Ezra, except for the time right around the injury,” he added with a small frown, “including my time as Steve Tanner. However, I don’t think it’s possible or practical for me to expect to go back to being Ezra at this point.”

He looked at Lauren beside him. “In name, legally at least, I’m Steve Tanner now. Lauren’s a Tanner,” he said, tossing a quick grin at Vin. “Mother may use whatever name she’s comfortable with,” Ezra teased, earning a mock frown from her. “But… I can tell you that the Steve Tanner you’ve known, isn’t me, not completely, though it’s going to take me a while to figure out how to integrate the two of us.”

“You make it sound like you’re two different people, Ezra,” Nathan said, his tone encouraging further explanation.

Ezra shrugged. “In a way, we are. There are things I’ve done as Ezra that Steve would never have done and vice versa. Thing is… I’ve changed, as Steve I’ve had experiences that have changed me. I’m not the same Ezra as I was ten years ago, yet I’m not the Steve I was less than a week ago either. Honestly, it’s all a bit confusing,” he admitted.

Understanding nods circled the room and silence fell for a few moments as they all tried to digest what Ezra had said.

Finally, Bryan spoke, breaking the silence. “So, what do we call you?”

Ezra pursed his lips. “Well, I don’t have a problem answering to either name. I’m sure my friends will continue to use Ezra, but the rest of you are free to use Steve, or Ezra if you prefer. Perhaps I’ll just have my name changed to Steven Ezra Tanner,” he said with a smile, “to make it easier to explain why my family calls me Ezra.”

His friends chuckled.

Lauren leaned against her father’s side to get his attention. “Dad?”

“Yes, Lo?”

“What happens now?” she asked quietly.

Ezra put his arm around her and squeezed gently. “Well, if I’m not mistaken, you and Emily have practice. I don’t believe Coach Beloff will let you off the hook for much longer.” He looked over at Emily and got a shy smile from her. “I have a lot of catching up to do, with your uncles…”

“Uncles?” Lauren squawked, sitting up straight, pulling away from her father’s hug.

“Hmm, I guess I didn’t clarify that, did I,” Ezra drawled. “These men are the only family we have other than your grandmother. They’re like brothers to me, and that makes them your uncles. As such, they have the same rights and responsibilities toward you as any blood relative would,” he said, turning to face Lauren and catching her eyes with his. “That means if you need help with something, you can go to one of them, just like you would me or your grandmother. And if you do something irresponsible, they have the right to call you on it, and report back to me,” he said meaningfully.

Lauren’s mouth dropped open. “You… they… you can’t do that! I don’t even know them!” she protested, launching to her feet.

“I can, and I have, in front of all these witnesses,” Ezra said, remaining in his seat. “I love you, Lauren, and I love these guys just as much as I would a brother or sister, if your grandmother had provided them. They are family, I suggest you take the time to get to know them and accept the fact.” He shook his head and added with a smile. “I admit, at times I have been tempted to disown them, but I suspect I would have had that experience with real siblings as well.”

“Thanks a lot, Ez,” Vin snarked, “love you, too.” The others chuckled.

Lauren frowned then turned and stalked away, heading up the stairs to her room.

Ezra watched her go with a sad frown on his face. He started to get up, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Give her some time, pard,” Vin said. “I’ll go up and talk to her in a bit. It’s gotta be hard to suddenly get six uncles you never knew before.”

Ezra nodded and sat back, one hand supporting his injured side.

Maude stood. “I should get packed…” she started.

“Going somewhere, Mother?” Ezra asked.

“Well, it’s a little crowded with all your guests,” she said. “I thought I’d go home now that you are feeling better and…”

Ezra shook his head. “Oh, no, you aren’t going anywhere just yet,” he said firmly. “I have questions that I think only you can answer and Lauren needs you.”

“Questions, darling?” Maude asked innocently.

“Yes,” Ezra stated, “for example, why ‘Tanner’?”

Maude straightened the sleeve of her tailored suit jacket and gave a slight shrug.

Ezra grinned and glanced at Vin. “I’m afraid I haven’t treated your noble name all that well, my friend.”

His mother cleared her throat. “Well, if I’m not permitted to go home, I think I’ll leave you to get reacquainted with your… brothers,” she said, offering them a small smile before she headed up the stairs as well.

Chloe stood. “Perhaps we should go, too,” she said motioning her kids toward the door.

Ezra rose from his seat. “You don’t have to leave.”

She smiled. “I think you need some time with your family. We can catch up later.”

Ezra crossed the room and caught her by the arm. “I… I care for you a great deal, Chloe,” he said softly. “I’d like the chance to… for us to get to know each other better.”

Chloe cocked her head and smiled. “I’d like that… Ezra. I’d like that a lot.” She leaned in and they shared a gentle kiss. They both grinned as their lips parted and Ezra licked his lips.

“Me, too.” He looked around her to Emily and Bryan. “I want to get to know all of you,” he said, meeting both the teenagers’ eyes. Then to Emily, Ezra said, “would you let the coach know that Lauren will be back tomorrow, please?”

Emily nodded and smiled before turning to help her brother get his chair up the short stairs to the door.

Chloe squeezed Ezra’s hand. “Call me,” she said, then followed her kids out the door.

Ezra watched them leave, a contented smile on his face as he turned back to face the rest of the room.

JD smacked Buck on the arm. “Aren't you ashamed of yourself now?” he asked, a sparkle in his eyes.

“What was that for?” Buck squawked indignantly.

“I told you Ezra wasn’t interested in Agent Ross.”

“Pshaw!” Buck exclaimed. “Ain’t nothing wrong with a little flirting, boy.”

“Tell that to Inez,” Josiah replied with a toothy grin.

Ezra moved back to the couch and tugged at Vin’s arm so that the Texan lost his balance and fell onto the seat cushion. “I don’t let Lauren sit on the arm. You have to provide a good example for your niece now,” he teased, taking a seat beside his brother.

Vin chuckled.

“So, Buck,” Ezra said, continuing, “Inez hasn’t made an honest man of you yet?”

Chris grinned. “Nope. But to be fair, she was married to someone else for a while. When she realized Buck wasn’t ready to settle down, she discovered there were other, more serious suitors and she let one of them capture her heart.”

“Very poetic, old dog,” Buck groused, not sure how he had been chosen to be picked on.

“Anyone I know?” Ezra asked, feeling sorry for Buck, he remembered how much the older man had cared for Inez.

“Yeah,” Nathan supplied, “remember Rafe Cordova?”

Ezra nodded. Cordova had joined Team 6 not long before his injury. “Quite a gentleman, as I recall,” he said, casting a glance at Buck, not above a little teasing of his own.

“Inez thought so,” JD offered with a smile. “They got married after dating for about six months. A year later they had a little girl, Anna.” He sobered. “Rafe was killed in the line of duty about three or four years ago.”

Ezra ducked his head, empathy for the beautiful bar owner bringing tears to his eyes.

“She’s doing okay,” JD continued. “All the teams look out for her and Anna and they both come to all our family get-togethers.”

“Lately, Buck has been realizing how stupid he was to let Inez get away,” Chris said pointedly. “Been spending more time with her and Anna, just hasn’t quite figured out how to keep his trap shut about some things though.”

Buck shrugged. “I… old habits are hard to break?” he said weakly.

Ezra nodded. “The habit of not allowing yourself too close, perhaps?”

“Isn’t that a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, Ez?” Buck asked seriously.

“Maybe, ten years ago,” Ezra admitted, “but I have changed. If things continue to go well with Chloe…” he trailed off with a smug smile.

Buck grinned. “You old dog, you. I hope it does work out. She seems like a great gal.”

“And I hope you and Inez can work things out, Buck. You belong together,” Ezra insisted.

“Yeah,” Buck sighed. “Maybe you can give me some pointers.”

Ezra chuckled.

Vin looked over his shoulder toward the stairs. “Think I’ll go check on Lauren now.”

“I should…” Ezra started.

“No,” Vin said. “Let me. I may be able to tell her some things about Leslie that she won’t want to hear from you, shouldn’t hear from you.”

Ezra lowered his chin. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”

“Maybe,” Vin replied. “But she can get mad at me and not feel bad about it, at least not for a while,” he added with a grin. “And I can tell her about you, too. It’ll be okay, Ez. Trust me.”

Ezra looked into Vin’s earnest blue gaze. “I do, Vin.”

Vin nodded and headed upstairs. He could hear the conversation start back up below, Nathan and JD offering to show Ezra pictures of their kids, as he reached the door to Lauren’s room. He frowned, wondering if she would be in her room or Ezra’s since Maude had been using Lauren’s. Vin shrugged and knocked on the door.

He heard voices then the door opened and Maude smiled at him. “Your Uncle Vin is here to speak with you, Lauren,” Maude said over her shoulder as she stepped out of the room. “She’s all yours, dear.”

Vin watched her with bemusement as she entered another room down the hall. He turned and poked his head into Lauren’s room. “Mind if I come in?” he asked.

The girl was sitting on her bed, hugging a pillow with her knees drawn up in front of her. She shrugged, so Vin took that as a yes and pushed the door closed behind him. He wasn’t sure how loud their conversation might get and he didn’t want to alarm the others.

Vin could see the animosity flowing off his niece, so he wandered around the edge of the room looking at her trophies and photos. “Your grandmother has sent us some video of your competitions. From the number of trophies you’ve got, I guess you’re real good.” He looked at her and got another shrug. “Think it’d be okay if I came to see your practice tomorrow?”

Another shrug. Damn but she’s stubborn. Vin grinned. “Great,” he said, trying another tactic. “I can’t wait to see you in action.”

Lauren frowned, but didn’t reply.

Vin stopped by the window and leaned against the wall staring out at the view below. “Guess it’s kinda hard to find out your dad isn’t who you thought he was.” He fingered the edge of the curtain. “But I’m glad he remembers now. I’ve missed him. And I’m glad I can get a chance to know you, too.”

Still nothing from Lauren. Vin sighed.

“I’m not usually the talkative one of the bunch,” he said wryly. “JD, your dad, Buck and Josiah are the ones who could talk the hind legs off a donkey.”  A quiet chuckle came from the direction of the bed, but when Vin looked, Lauren didn’t have a trace of a smile on her face. He grinned and looked back out the window. “Nathan’s not too bad if you get on a subject he’s passionate about. Chris though, he’s so quiet, some days I have to poke him just to make sure he’s still breathing.”

Vin watched Lauren out of the corner of his eye for a moment then ran a hand through his hair. “Guess you have a lotta questions. You can ask me anything, ya know. About your dad, or the rest of us. Or your mom. I spent a little time with her while we were working the Long case. Can’t say I knew her well, but maybe I can help you understand her better.” Vin waited and a few minutes later was rewarded with a soft voice.

“I don’t remember anything before Boulder,” Lauren said slowly. “And I know I haven’t met you before, but you look familiar.” Vin met her eyes and nodded encouragingly. “When I was real little, six or seven, grandmother was always around. I think she lived with us then. Mom smiled and Dad…” she frowned thoughtfully, “I… he was quieter, stayed at home more.” Lauren looked at Vin with dawning understanding in her eyes. “As I got older, things changed. Mom and Dad started to fight about things, her drinking I guess.” She gazed at her bedspread without seeing. “Then grandmother moved out and only came back to visit once in a while. I was about ten when Mom went away, Dad said she was sick and was going to get some help at a special hospital, but when she came back, things didn’t get better and Dad made her leave.” Lauren plucked at a snag in the bed cover. “They got divorced not too long after that.”

“Your grandmother wrote to us, told us some of what was happening,” Vin said, moving to take a seat on the bed. “When I met your mom, she was hooked on drugs. I’m not sure what all, but your grandmother arranged for her to go through detox and helped arrange your new life here in Boulder. Your dad had a long recovery from his head injury. At first he…” Vin paused and cleared his throat, the memory of Ezra’s condition making his voice rough with emotion. “For a while, we didn’t think he’d ever be… he couldn’t even remember what someone told him from one minute to the next, Lo. The doctors didn’t think he would recover.”

Vin took a deep breath and continued. “But you come from tough stock, kiddo,” he said with a wobbly grin. “As a Standish and a Tanner,” he added with a wink. “Your grandmother arranged for the best doctors to help your mom and your dad and they both got better. Unfortunately, addiction is hard to overcome and Steve was at a disadvantage trying to help your mom deal with her problem.”

Lauren frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I think if he had known who he was and had the memories of his past experiences with Leslie, the love they shared before you were born, it might have been easier for him to help her when she started using again. But he was still recovering himself. Maude said he was still suffering pretty bad headaches in those days. Probably why he didn’t get out much. And your mom, well, she was having to take care of you and your dad and fight her own problems without even having the support of the man she had loved because your dad just didn’t remember.”

“But he did love her…”

Vin nodded. “Yeah. But it started out for him as something he thought he should do because he was told it was true. You have to understand, Lo, your dad didn’t remember anything about himself or his past and Steve Tanner hadn’t existed until he woke up after the explosion. Everything he knew about himself, about Steve was made up. Some of it was based on the truth. He did love Leslie and you are his daughter, but Ezra never knew Leslie was pregnant until the day he was injured. His entire life started over here in Boulder with you, Leslie and your grandma.”

Tears leaked down Lauren’s face as she began to understand that much of what she thought she knew about her parents was a lie. “Why didn’t he know about me?” she asked.

“From what Ezra told me, he and your mom were together in college, but she got into some things…”

“Drugs. Just say it,” Lauren demanded.

“Okay, drugs and alcohol,” Vin agreed. “She couldn’t stop and didn’t want to, I guess, not back then. Ezra did love her and tried to help, but finally couldn’t watch her destroying herself so he broke it off. He didn’t know she was pregnant with you. Leslie never tried to contact him.” Lauren looked at him expectantly, so he continued. “I don’t know how she hooked up with Kenny Long, but evidently the two of you had been with him for some time before the ATF got wind of his plans.”

Lauren was watching him intently now, so Vin continued. “Like I said, I didn’t really get to know her well, but I could tell she loved you, even with her drug addiction. Despite who she was with, Leslie did make sure you were taken care of.”

Lauren frowned. “Sounds like she was too high most of the time to know if I was okay or not.”

Vin pressed his lips together, not wanting to lie to her. “It’s hard to know what causes a person to end up relying on drugs. We don’t know what happened in your mom’s life. I think you need to remember that she loved you and forgive her for her short-comings. If nothing else, what she was doing then brought you back together with your father.”

Lauren dropped her chin onto the pillow she still clutched to her chest. “What about my dad? Who was he before he became Steve Tanner?”

Vin couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face. “Well, now, that’s a long story, Lo. Ezra Standish was and is a complicated character.”

A knock on the door was followed by Ezra peeking his head in. “Might I interrupt your tęte-ŕ-tęte?”

Vin and Lauren mouthed ‘tęte-ŕ-tęte’ at each other with disbelieving looks then broke into laughter.

Ezra smiled uncertainly. “I’m glad to see you are getting along.”

This just made the two of them laugh harder. Ezra raised an eyebrow and waited for them to collect themselves.

“Sorry, Ez. I think we’re just about done here, for now,” Vin said sharing a look with Lauren as he stood. “I was just about to start telling her about you, but that will take a long, long time, so now’s as good a time for a break as any, right, Lo?”

Lauren gave him a small smile and nodded. Vin nodded back and headed out the door. “Vin?” Lauren called, causing him to stop and look back. “Thank you,” she said.

Vin smiled. “Any time, Lauren. You need anything, you can come to me, understand, Niece?” he asked with a wink.

She nodded.

“Don’t take too long, Ez,” Vin said. “I think it’s about lunch time, my stomach’s growling.”

Ezra rolled his eyes. “We just finished breakfast, Vin.” He turned conspiratorially to his daughter. “Of course, that was probably your Uncle Vin’s ‘second breakfast.’”

“Yep,” Vin said, patting his flat stomach. “And now it’s time for my first lunch. Don’t be late or it’ll all be gone,” he sing-songed as he headed down the hall.

Ezra chuckled, but grew serious as he looked at Lauren. “Can I come in?” Lauren nodded and he crossed to take a seat on the bed. “I know all this is hard to take in, Lauren. Believe me, it’s not easy for me either.”

She nodded again, but waited for him to continue.

“Is there anything you want to ask me?” Ezra asked. “I’ll try to answer as best I can. I… I haven’t been the best parent and I won’t blame that on not being able to remember. Looking back, I hope I would have handled some things differently, especially between you and your mother, but you have to believe that everything I do is to protect you, Lauren. I love you so much. I can’t bear the thought of hurting you or losing you,” he said, tears glittering in his eyes.

Lauren got up on her knees and hugged her dad. “I know, Daddy. I love you, too,” she said as her father wrapped his arms around her tight. “It’s just a lot to take in, you know?”

Ezra nodded. “I know, pumpkin. I know.” He grasped her shoulders and gently pushed her back so he could look in her eyes. “But we can get through it, if we stick together. Team Tanner?” he asked hopefully.

Lauren smiled, sniffing and wiping her eyes. “Team Tanner.” She sat back, looking at her dad. “So, six uncles, huh? Any other surprises I should know about?” she asked, teasingly.

Ezra grinned. “Well, there are a few other ‘family’ members you haven’t met yet,” he said. “JD and Nathan are both married and have kids….”




Almost a year later, Denver, Colorado, the Larabee ranch

Nathan hurried into the living room and rolled his eyes at the sight before him. There were at least three sets of legs sticking out of the pile of bodies on the floor. “Boys!” he called, wading in to grab the topmost of his children by the arm. He tossed Patrick to the couch and grabbed the second child, whose pale complexion did not belong to his other twin, Michael, but to JD’s youngest, Joe. He could see the other two culprits still engaged with their prey.

“Get off your uncle,” Nathan said, dropping Joe beside Rick on the couch and reaching to grab a third munchkin.

With only one obstacle left, Ezra sat up, with JD’s daughter in his arms. He laughed, his face red with exertion as Patricia giggled and kept trying to tickle him. “Hah! Your Uncle Nate has come to my rescue, fair maiden,” Ezra exclaimed, standing with the girl still in his arms. He eyed the three boys who sat giggling on the couch. “Now I’ve got you!” Ezra shouted, carefully dumping Patty across the boys’ laps. He laughed as the kids tried to untangle themselves.

Nathan grinned and shook his head. Ezra was the biggest kid of all, spoiled his niece and nephews rotten. “Why don’t you guys go outside and play for a while?”

“Ah, Dad!” and “But Uncle Nathan,” earned them a mock glare from the man. The glare shifted targets when the door slammed open admitting Lauren and Emily who slid to a stop at the sight of Nathan and Ezra.

“Dad!” both girls shouted at once. “Can we go horse-back riding?” Lauren asked as Emily said, “Uncle Vin is going to double with Bryan so he can come, too.”

Ezra looked at Nathan who had turned his gaze to the four younger children knowing that now they would want to be included. “Up for a ride?” Ezra asked, his gold tooth showing in his broad grin.

Yay!” the four kids on the couch shouted as they tumbled to the floor and started to run for the front door.

“No running in the house,” Nathan said to himself as all the guilty parties had already headed for the barn. “You are a bad influence,” he groused to Ezra good-naturedly.

“Oh,” Ezra replied, his tone light and happy, “I suppose it wasn’t you who sent Lauren and Emily those new leotards that they wanted, the ones that I told them they couldn’t have because they were too expensive?”

Nathan chuckled. “Whatever. At least we’re not as bad as Chris…”

“Or Vin,” Ezra said.

“Or Josiah,” they said in unison as they exited the house.

The End!


Whew! Done, finally. I may be encouraged to write a few additional scenes or even a sequel eventually, but for now, I’m calling it done. If you like this AU and want to play in it, feel free, but let me know so I can read your story!

Please let me know how you liked it. JudyL

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Jessica WalterMichelle Phillips

Disclaimer for MIOBI: I replaced Jessica Walter, the actress who portrayed Steve Tanner’s mother, with Michelle Phillips, the actress who played Maude in M7. They do bear a slight resemblance<G>.